13    Dec 201324 comments

Surnames: Different countries, different traditions

Surnames or family names are the part of a person’s name that is passed down through families, or given according to law or custom. Many cultures have different customs for how names are passed from generation to generation.

Surnames originate from the relatively "recent" medieval custom of bynames, or names given to differentiate people.

There were four different types of bynames typically given:

• Patronymic – describing you as your father’s child
• Locative – describing where you live, were born, your place of work, or what land you own
• Occupational status – describing your occupation or rank
• Nicknames – could be many things, such as a trait, or common tool that you used

During the Middle Ages, bynames became less common and inherited surnames became the norm throughout Europe and western culture.

In Greece and Slavic countries, males and females are given different variations of the same family name.

According to the European tradition, children took their father’s surname. In recent years, this tradition has changed , as the trend has been towards women retaining maiden names and not taking a husband’s family name. Children are not automatically given their father’s surname, and they take their mother's or father’s surname or a combination of both those surnames.

According to a United States Census Bureau study, the most common last name in 2000 was Smith, held by about 2.3 million people, or almost 1% of the population. An additional six names were used by over 1 million people each (Johnson, Williams, Brown, Jones, Miller and Davis). These top seven names are about 4% of the US population, or one of every 25 people.

While, to most English speakers, Smith sounds like a common last name, in Vietnam, according to tradition, there are only 100 surnames!

A study conducted in Bac-ninh province of North Vietnam estimated that some 40% of Vietnamese people bear the surname Nguyen.

Also see this interesting map of the most common surnames in Europe.

Where does your surname come from? Is it a common name? Let us know in the comments below.

Search for your ancestors:

Comments (24) Trackbacks (1)
  1. My last name is Maddox. I have been told it is Irish. My father's forefather did go to Canada from Englan in 1837
  2. My surname is Eisenbach. It comes from Germany and I believe at one time it was Von Eisenbach but I've been told they sold the Von. Don't know how you do that but that's what I've heard.
  3. In Lithuania, females have an unmarried surname ending based on their father's root name, & then a different ending from their husband's root name when they are married. They can use both. Lithuania is not a Slavic country, it is a Baltic country.
  4. my grandfather was born in poland came tocanada 1920?
  5. Mine came from Irland. (Massey)
  6. My maiden last name is Tower...my married name is Tost...any info on the origin of country these names may have come from....Carol Tost ..carols1957@live.ca.
  7. My maiden last name is Tower...my married name is Tost...any info on the origin of country these names may have come from....
  8. akins atkins aikens adkins
  9. My family name of Kittredge most probably has a Gaelic origin. Many people try to associate an English origen because thee are Kittredges in England. However there are also Kittridges in Ireland. Someone once showed me a Gaelic dictionary and Keter was a word for a cliff and he also showed me Scottish which originates from the Gaelic where it was spelled Kadir meaning the same thing. Edge or ridge could be an English add on but that makes me wonder why the Gaelic wasn't used even in Ireland unless the word for edge or ridge is the same in that language.
  10. Koski is a fairly common name in various parts of Finland but searching for relatives can be trying. I have a great great grandfather who had a children but Hiski had him with three different names his name is Gustaf Hahtomaa (Gussaffson) as the real name but that is in Swedish. Gustaffson means Gusaff's son. The finns write is as Kusti Hahtomaa (Kustinpoika) Kustinpoika being the patronym like in Swedish. However the last name they had his last name as Gustaff Lassila from the farm Lassilasta that he lived on, also Gustaff Gustaffson using the patronym as the last name. In fact, in Finland all those names are valid.
  11. a family name traced back to knights, wonder if they lived in a lee of a hill, or made leather wear.
  12. My maiden name is Erkenbrecher and originally Thurengia in Germany. My husband's name is Hall and his gg-grandfather is supposedly from England.
  13. My family name is Wronski/y. According to my research they were "Rsuuian Jews" but I have found reference to Wronsky in Poland. Further investigation required.
  14. My maiden name is Waddingham. They came from England. Any one interested, contact me at lcassatt@comcast.net.
  15. My maiden name is Zerf. I do not know where it started. please can someone help me find out how this surname came about.
  16. Zachrisson, Zackariasson, Zackrisen + other and ending in Au Zackeresen (me) probably more varients originally X Schlechwig (?) Holstein, Germany and Sweden.
  17. My paternal grandfather's surname was Humaj until he anglicized it in Australia to Humay. The feminine form of Humaj is Humajová. It is interesting to note that all the sites that have the Slovak surname Humaj and Humajová are connected to me via my paternal grandfather and his extended family.
  18. My maiden name was Gunn and I have traced heritage back to 1750 when my 7th Great Grandfather arrived on the ship Nancy from Cowes, England. However, his name was then Thomas GANN, not Gunn. His son Christian was married as GANN, but around 1800 it was recorded as GUNN and has been so down through the descendants. Would like to find where Thomas Gann originated from in Europe. Anyone else related to Thomas Gann?


  20. My birth surname was Freeman,and for personal reasons was later changed to Walker.
  21. My last name is CAPELS (also CAPLES). My father's ancestry includes Irish and German. I did not find any documentation to indicate it was derived from the Irish CAPLIS; instead, indications seem to point to German, possibly derived from KAPLE, KAPPLE, KEPPEL, etc. I am at a brick wall now trying to verify a German Palatine through Ireland connection.
  22. My great grandfather last name was GUSTAFF. I heard two stories. 1 He ran away from Germany during the war to JAMAICA.2 that the name is actually from SWEDEN and it derived from the KING OF SWEDEN. I am not sure which is true but I am interested in knowing,how a JAMAICAN girl like me and the rest of my family got the name GUSTAFF. Note, there are different spellings of the surname GUSTAFF, GUSTAF, GUSTAFFE,GUSTAV. In JAMAICA.
  23. My paternal grandmother's name was FRANKIEWICZ when she arrived in the USA. I have been told by Polish people that it probably FRANCKIEWICZ OR FRONCKIEWICZ. She came for Russia Poland and lived on a farm near the Russian border. In 1910 she was put on a train to a ship or taken to a ship and sent to an aunt in New York. She met her husband in Syracuse, NY. My question is, what last name would it be. Her father and brothers were taken into the Russian Army. Hence, the reason at the age of 14 she was sent alone, out of Poland.
  24. Helena Brown , a vvery common name, but hard to find the origin

Leave a comment


Please type a comment
Please enter a name
Please enter an email address
About us  |  Privacy  |  Tell a friend  |  Support  |  Site map
Copyright © 2016 MyHeritage Ltd., All rights reserved