Surnames: Different countries, different traditions

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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.

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  • Peggy Maddox Wiseman


    December 13, 2013

    My last name is Maddox. I have been told it is Irish. My father’s forefather did go to Canada from Englan in 1837

  • Sandy Hargrove


    December 13, 2013

    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.

  • Sherri Lipcius


    December 13, 2013

    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.

  • seweryn luba


    December 13, 2013

    my grandfather was born in poland came tocanada 1920?

  • Carolyn


    December 13, 2013

    Mine came from Irland. (Massey)

  • carol tost


    December 13, 2013

    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.

  • carol tost


    December 13, 2013

    My maiden last name is Tower…my married name is Tost…any info on the origin of country these names may have come from….

  • aikens


    December 14, 2013

    akins atkins aikens adkins

  • Glenn


    December 14, 2013

    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.

  • Ken


    December 14, 2013

    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.

  • bagley


    December 14, 2013

    a family name traced back to knights, wonder if they lived in a lee of a hill, or made leather wear.

  • Carol Erkenbrecher-Hall


    December 15, 2013

    My maiden name is Erkenbrecher and originally Thurengia in Germany. My husband’s name is Hall and his gg-grandfather is supposedly from England.

  • Denise


    December 15, 2013

    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.

  • Lucille


    December 16, 2013

    My maiden name is Waddingham. They came from England. Any one interested, contact me at lcassatt@comcast.net.

  • Zola Ivy Rocha


    December 17, 2013

    My maiden name is Zerf. I do not know where it started. please can someone help me find out how this surname came about.

  • Mavis zackeresen


    December 18, 2013

    Zachrisson, Zackariasson, Zackrisen + other and ending in Au Zackeresen (me) probably more varients originally X Schlechwig (?) Holstein, Germany and Sweden.

  • Joanne E Fletcher nee Humay


    December 20, 2013

    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.

  • Lori Gunn Bossman


    December 20, 2013

    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?

  • MARIE R.ZANOTELLI,RACKLEY


    December 24, 2013

    MY MAIDEN NAME, IS ZANOTELLI,

    M,Y HERITAGE GOES BACK TO 1650, I JUST FOUND THE OUT ABOUT 3 WEEKS.. THEY CAME FROM LIVO AUSTRIA, BUT IT IS KNOW NOW AS LIVO TRENTINO OR TRENTO…

    MY NAME IS MARIE R. ZANOTELLI, RACKLEY

  • Lilian Jackson


    December 30, 2013

    My birth surname was Freeman,and for personal reasons was later changed to Walker.

  • Valerie Capels


    January 19, 2014

    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.

  • Cristal Gustaff


    September 4, 2014

    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.

  • Arlene Sienkiewicz


    July 24, 2015

    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.

  • Helena Brown


    February 2, 2016

    Helena Brown , a vvery common name, but hard to find the origin

  • Susie Zada


    April 6, 2018

    FUSSEN – yes, I know there is a town called FÜSSEN but nothing to indicate the family came from here. We’ve been able to identify only 9 FUSSEN families around the world – Australia, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, Prussia, USA. Mine is the Australian family – and only FUSSENs in Australia are my immediate family. My brother and I have both done DNA tests and my nephew is in the process of doing his. A POSSIBLE cousin in Belgium has just done her test and it’s on the way to MyHeritage – we have our fingers and toes crossed that we will find enough matches to indicate that we really ARE cousins. Many of the records were lost due to bombing in Europe during the second world war – it would be so good to connect some / all of these various FUSSEN families. Some have done extensive research of our trees – unfortunately I hit a brick wall in France – can’t find my great-grandfather’s birth in c1853. He may have lied – I’m hoping the DNA can help!

  • Roger D Axsom


    April 8, 2018

    Europe I think, spelling may have changed over time.

  • Frank Kelch


    April 8, 2018

    My last name seems to be quite rare in the USA (I’ve never met one that wasn’t related to me). I understand that it’s more common in Germany.

  • kathy white


    April 15, 2018

    married name snyder madian name white

  • Judy l Ring


    April 17, 2018

    My sur name is Ring my Grandfather name was Thomas Jefferson Ring and my Grandmother name was Bertha Evelyn Luter i just wondering were they came from

  • Julian H. Preisler


    April 17, 2018

    Maternal side we have Goldman thought to be related to the female name Golda. On my paternal side there is Bauch (stomach or belly) and Preisler which has been spelled many different ways…Preissler, Preiszler, Preussler, Preißler, Preußler, etc. Have been told that it was related to being from Prussia (Preussen), but am not sure. Kastner on the maternal side was probably at one point related to a medieval occupation Kastner “bursary officer”