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.", "Mark Johns" would be short for "Mark, son of John".

The word "surname" is "name" prefixed by the French word sur, which derive from Latin super. It was sometimes spelled sirname and sirename because of the paternal origin.

In the 19th century, Francis Galton published a statistical study of the extinction of family names. See Galton-Watson process for an account of some of the mathematics.

Table of contents
1 English- and French-speaking countries
2 Ireland
3 Spain and Hispanic areas
4 Iceland
5 Scandinavia
6 India and Indonesia
7 Russia
8 China, Hungary, Japan, and Korea
9 See also
10 External Links

English- and French-speaking countries

In English- German- and French-speaking countries (e.g., U.S, U.K, Australia, Canada, France), people often have two or more given names (first and middle), and the family name goes at the end, which is why it's sometimes called a "last name." The last name is usually the father's family name. More rarely, a hyphenation of both parents' last names is used, which is sometimes colloquially referred to as a "double-barreled name." Very rarely is the mother's family name by itself used.

It has long been the custom for women to give up their family name (called the birth name or maiden name) upon marriage, and to use their husband's last name in its place. In recent years, more women have chosen to keep their birth name when they are married. Still, even in families where the wife has kept her birth name, parents often choose to give their children father's family name.

It is extremely rare for men in Western countries to take the name of their wifes; this was chiefly done in the Middle Ages, when the man was from a low-born family and was marrying an only daughter, and was thus designated to carry on his wife's family name. In the 18th and 19th centuries in Britain, bequests were sometimes made contingent upon a man changing (or hyphenating) his name, so that the name of the legator continued. Now, some men choose to take their wives' names rather than the reverse. A married couple may also choose a new last name rather that that of either the husband or the wife.

In civil law jurisdictions such as France or Quebec, name change upon marriage is no longer recognized. Those who wishes to change their name upon marriage must follow the same legal procedure as would be used under any other circumstance. Otherwise, although one may use a married name, one's legal name remains unchanged.

In some jurisdictions, contrariwise, it used to be the case that the woman's legal name changed automatically upon marriage. This is no longer the case in most jurisdictions; now, women may easily change to their married name, though it is no longer automatic. In some jurisdictions, civil rights lawsuits were used to change the law so that men could easily change to a married name, too.


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.

Spain and Hispanic areas

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 places like Iceland, most people have no real family name; the last name of a person is a modified form of the first name of the father (a patronymic custom) or, sometimes, of the mother. For example, when a man called Karl has a daughter called Anna, her name will be Anna Karlsdóttir ("daughter of Karl").


In Scandinavia, particularly in Sweden, family names often, but certainly not always, originate from a patronymic. These family names are today passed on similarly to family names in other western countries. Karlsson for example means Karl's son, but today Karlsson is a family name, and your father doesn't have to be called Karl if you have the surname Karlsson. In Denmark and Norway family names ending with -sen are common. Karlsen for example means Karl's son. Noble persons in Sweden often have family names referring to their coat of arms. Before the 19th century there was the same system in Scandinavia as in Iceland today, but not everyone had a patronymic. Family names such as Bergman, Holmberg and Lindgren, were quite frequent and remain common today.

India and Indonesia

Main article: Indian family name

Similar patronymic customs exist in some parts of India and Indonesia. 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". The same is true in Bulgaria.

China, Hungary, Japan, and Korea

Main articles: Chinese family name, Korean name#Family names

In other cultures, like Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Hungarian, the family name is placed before the given names. So the terms "first name" and "last name" carry opposite meanings when used outside of English speaking cultures. In many non-English-speaking countries, names are referred to as surname and given name to avoid ambiguity. Some Chinese add a Christian name in front of their Chinese name, so an example would be is Martin LEE Chu-ming. In addition, many Chinese Americans have an English name which is commonly used and a Chinese name which is used as a middle name, that is to say, Martin Chu-ming Lee. Chinese living in the US are willing to rearrange their real names to avoid misunderstanding. However, no one in China would rearrange Mao Zedong into Zedong Mao in English writings.

In English writings originated from non-English culture (e.g. English newspapers in China), the surname is often written with all capital letters to avoid being mistaken as the middle name: "Martin LEE Chu-ming" (this practice is common on the Internet), or in small capitals (except the first letter), as "Martin LEE Chu-ming" (this is more common in books) or AKUTAGAWA, Ryunosuke to make clear which one is the family name, particularly often in mass-media reporting international events like the Olympic Games. The CIA The World Factbook stated that "The Factbook capitalizes the surname or family name of individuals for the convenience of [their] users who are faced with a world of different cultures and naming conventions." On the contrary, Wikipedia follows a strict guideline on not to use all capital family names. As a result, non-English names appearing in Wikipedia articles are ambiguous to most laymen. For example, Leslie Cheung Kwok Wing might be mistaken as Mr. Wing by reader unaware of Chinese naming conventions.

In Japan, a convention that a man uses his wife's family name if the wife is an only child is sometimes observed.

See also

External Links