The fascinating origins of surnames

Surname-based organizations and societies

The Fascinating Origins of Surnames

Have you ever wondered where your surname comes from? Surnames have been around for centuries, and their origins can tell us a lot about our family history and the people who came before us. In this article, we will explore the fascinating origins of surnames and uncover some surprising facts about this essential part of our identity.

The Early History of Surnames

While the use of surnames is ubiquitous in modern times, they weren't always a common practice. In fact, surnames didn't become widespread until the Middle Ages, primarily in Europe. Before then, individuals were usually referred to by a single name, often based on their profession or their father's name. For example, a blacksmith may have been called John the Blacksmith, and a child named William may have been referred to as the son of John.

The Emergence of Surnames

The use of surnames became more common as populations grew, and it became necessary to differentiate between individuals with the same given names. Surnames were also used to identify individuals in legal and religious documents, making it easier to keep track of who was who. The origins of surnames vary widely and can be traced back to different cultures and regions around the world. Some surnames are based on a person's occupation, such as Carpenter or Smith. Others are based on physical features like Brown, Green, or Short. Still, others are based on locations or places, like London, Hill, or Brooks.

Surnames Based on Occupations

Occupational surnames are some of the most common surnames found today. These surnames often originated from the medieval practice of apprenticeship, where a person would take on an apprentice to teach them their trade. The surname would then be passed down from the master to the apprentice once they completed their training. Some examples of occupational surnames include Baker, Cook, Taylor, Miller, and Fisher. These surnames tell us that our ancestors were likely involved in the production of food, clothing, or other goods.

Surnames Based on Physical Features

Physical feature surnames are another common type of surname. These surnames often describe a person based on their distinguishing physical features. For instance, someone with dark hair may have been named Brown, while someone who was particularly short may have been called Short. Other examples of physical feature surnames include Green (for someone with green eyes), Long (for someone who was tall), and Armstrong (for someone with strong arms). These surnames provide a glimpse into the physical characteristics of our ancestors.

Surnames Based on Locations or Places

Surnames based on locations or places are another common type of surname. These surnames often describe where a person came from, where they lived, or where their family originated. For example, someone with the surname London may have come from or had ancestors from London, while someone with the surname Hill may have lived on or near a hill. Other examples of location or place-based surnames include Brooks (for someone who lived near a brook), Mendoza (for someone from Mendoza, Spain), and Sullivan (for someone from County Kildare in Ireland).


Surnames are more than just a name – they are an essential part of our family history and identity. The fascinating origins of surnames tell us a lot about the people who came before us and the lives they led. By exploring the different types of surnames and their origins, we can gain a deeper understanding of our family history and the world around us.