Family Surname Meanings

Surnames, now typically referred to as last names, are the link to our past. They are the way we begin to understand the origins, or roots of our family, and are a great way to learn about our relatives.

Surname, which has been also written as "sirname" in the past, is essentially the name derived from one's father, or "sire-name." A surname is share among family members, and it is a way to distinguish each family member's given name.

A surname is basically the historical portion of an individual's name. The personal name consists of the given name, such as Tom or Rebecca, and then the surname (sometimes referred to as the family name), such as Ford or Jones. Depending on the culture, the surname can be either patronymic (the last name of the father) or metronymic (the last name of the mother). In a few cultures, such as Burmese or Javanese, surnames are not even used.

Typically, the surname is the last name, but in some cultures, such as Japanese and Hungarian, the surname is the first name, followed by the given name.

All about Surnames

There are many elements that influence the formation of a surname and family surname meanings. Some of these elements include:

  • The last name of the mother or the father
  • The geographical origin of the name holder
  • The occupation of the name holder

Up until the tenth century, people were only referred to by their first names. Before this time in history, people did not travel and lived in small communities, making first names a sufficient way to distinguish individuals. A first name, in a small village, was never used more than once, thereby eliminating any confusion. However, as the population of the world increased, and as more and more people began traveling and communities began intermingling, the need to distinguish families became more apparent.

The oldest surname recorded was found in Europe, in Irish historical records, in the year 916.

Surnames were also used hundreds of years ago to answer certain questions:

  • Who is this person related to?
  • Where is this person from?
  • What is this person's occupation?
  • What are this person's most significant features?

Considering that the majority of men were named either John, William or Richard in the thirteenth century, the need to distinguish between individuals became more important. Surnames started by combining the first name with the first name of the father. For example, the surname Robertson likely had its origins when a man names William, the son of Robert, eventually became William Robertson. Or, if William was a baker, for example, he may become William Baker.

Another example is the surname Yates, which is an English surname that evolved from the word "gates" or the Old English word "geats. "The earliest members of the family of Yates were gatekeepers, thus their names originated from their occupation in life. The surname has been traced back to Yate, currently known as Gloucester, England. This is just one example of the fascinating information you can find out about your family history by exploring surname meanings.

The Most Common Surnames in the U.S.

Some of the most common surnames in the U.S. are listed below:

1 Smith 2,772,200
2 Johnson 2,232,100
3 Williams 1,926,200
4 Jones 1,711,200
5 Brown 1,711,200
6 Davis 1,322,700
7 Miller 1,168,400
8 Wilson 934,200
9 Moore 859,800
10 Taylor 857,000
11 Anderson 857,000
12 Thomas 857,000
13 Jackson 854,200
14 White 768,800
15 Harris 757,800
16 Martin 752,300
17 Thompson 741,300
18 Garcia 699,900
9 Martinez 644,800
20 Robinson 642,100

(Information in this chart was taken from

Exploring the history of your family's surname and a surname meaning is a fascinating aspect of genealogical research. With all of the information you find in the surname, you will often be led down new avenues of research possibilities.

Online Resources for Finding your Surname Meaning - This website allows you to research English, Dutch, Irish, Spanish and Welch surnames, among many others. This comprehensive search engine allows you to better understand your surname's history and origins.

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