Family name

HomePage | Recent changes | View source | Discuss this page | Page history | Log in |

Printable version | Disclaimers | Privacy policy

A family name, or surname, is that part of the name of a person that indicates to what family he or she belongs. Originally, family names indicated the occupation or estate of a person: "Robert Smith" would be short for "Robert the blacksmith"; "Mary Windsor" would be short for "Mary of Windsor."

In areas where certain family names are extremely common, extra names are added that sometimes follow this archaic pattern. In Ireland, for example, where "Murphy" is an exceedingly common name, particular Murphy families or extended families are nicknamed, so that Denis Murphy's family were called "The Weavers" and Denis himself was called Denis "The Weaver" Murphy.

In English speaking countries (U.S., U.K., Australia), people usually have two given names (first and middle), and the family name goes at the end, which is why it's sometimes called a "last name." In Western countries such as France, Germany, and Poland, generally the last name is usually the last name of the father (and the mother's married name, because it's usual for the wife to take the last name of her husband as her own). More rarely, a hyphenation of both parents' last names, known as a "double-barrel name." Very rarely is the mother's name by itself used.

In Spain and countries of Hispanic culture (former Spanish colonies), each person has two family names: the first is the first family name of the father, the second is the first family name of the mother. As in the case of the English-speaking middle name, the second family name can be omitted or reduced to the initial.

In other cultures, like the Chinese and Hungarian, the family name is actually put in front of the given names. So the terms "first name" and "last name" are appropriate only when the last name typically listed is the family name. In many non-English speaking countries, names are referred to as surname and given name to avoid ambiguity. Many Chinese people add a Christian name in front of their Chinese name, so an example would be is Martin Lee Chu-ming (chairman of the Democratic party in Hong Kong). In non-English languages, and very rarely in English, the surname is often written with all capital letters to avoid being mistaken as the middle name: "Martin LEE Chu-ming."

In other places like Iceland, there is no real family name; the last name of a person is a modified form of the first name of the father (a patronymic custom). Similiar customs exist in some parts of India. However, many Indians (from India) living in English-speaking countries give up on this tradition because many English speakers so consistently misunderstand the custom; therefore many Indian fathers simply follow the English-speaking custom to pass on their last name instead of their first.

In Russia, names are typically written with both family name and patronymic, a modified version of the father's name. For example, in the name "Lev Ivanovich Chekhov," "Chekhov" is the family name or surname whereas "Ivanovich" is the patronymic; we can infer that Lev's father was named "Ivan."