The history of surname changes and adoption

The History of Surname Changes and Adoption

Throughout history, people have been known to change their surnames for various reasons. Whether it was due to marriage, immigration, adoption, or other circumstances, these changes have shaped our understanding of family history and genealogy. In this article, we will explore the history of surname changes and adoption and how these changes have impacted people's lives.

Historical Surname Changes

Surname changes have occurred throughout history. One significant example was the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, where French-speaking Normans replaced Anglo-Saxon lords and changed the language and culture. Names such as William the Conqueror, his family surname was 'de Normandie,' and his descendants who ruled England as 'de Plantagenet' and 'de Tudor' show how surname changes were often linked to power and politics.

Similarly, the Jewish diaspora experienced frequent surname changes. When Jews were forced to migrate or were expelled from a particular country, they would often change their surnames to fit in with their new surroundings. For example, a Jew who lived in Germany and moved to Russia might change their surname from 'Goldstein' to 'Zlotnik,' which has a similar meaning but is better suited to the Russian language.

Surname Changes Due to Marriage

Another common reason for surname changes is marriage. In many cultures, women change their surnames to their husband's surname after the wedding. This practice, known as taking your husband's name, has roots in European history where women were seen as property and taking the husband's surname was seen as a transfer of ownership.

However, in modern times, there has been a shift towards women keeping their surnames and even hyphenating them with their husband's surname. This shift encourages individuals to maintain their sense of identity and challenges traditional gender roles within marriage.

Immigration and Surname Changes

Immigration has had a considerable impact on surname changes. When people migrate to a new country, they often adopt a new surname to assimilate into their new culture. For example, when Chinese immigrants arrived in America, they often changed their surnames from their Chinese characters to an English equivalent.

Similarly, many Jews who migrated to America changed their surnames to fit into American culture. The famous comedian, Mel Brooks, was born Melvin Kaminsky, but his father changed their surname to Brooks to help them assimilate and avoid discrimination.

Adoption and Surname Changes

Adoption is another common reason for surname changes, particularly when a child is adopted by a family who has a different surname. In these cases, the child often takes on the new family name to align with their new family identity.

However, in recent years, there has been a growing trend towards open adoptions, where the birth parents and adoptive parents maintain a relationship with the child. In these cases, the child may retain their birth surname or hyphenate it with their new surname. This approach recognizes the significance of maintaining family connections and history, even in cases of adoption.


Surname changes have been prevalent throughout history, and they continue to shape our understanding of family history and genealogy. Whether it is due to immigration, marriage, or adoption, these changes reflect individuals' desire to assimilate, maintain their identity, or connect with their family history. Understanding the history of surname changes and adoption can provide insights into personal and cultural identities, helping us better understand the complex weave of human history and diversity.