last names

When did people start using last names? Things started out with Adam and Eve and then Cain and Abel, so there was really no confusion at first. Then there were people like Moses, Abraham and Noah, all of whom had no last names that I know of. We even got to the philosophers like Aristotle and Socrates without needing a last name. Then there’s William Shakespeare or Leonardo DaVinci who have them.

I’ve heard that the history behind common last names was often the person’s profession, so a blacksmith named Phil would end up as Phil Smith or a miller named Earl would be dubbed Earl Miller. Then of course there’s the son suffix, so if a guy named John had a son named Fred, the last name might end up being Johnson (John’s son).

According to Wikipedia, other sources of last names are personal characteristics (e.g. Short, Brown, Goodman, Whitehead), places & geographical features (e.g. Scott, Hill, Rivers, Windsor) and ancestry, often based on a first name.

I’ve heard that before, but what I’d really like to know is when the use of last names became commonplace. I would imagine it was a gradual change, but I wonder if people just started adding last names on their own, or if was there a more official process. If there was an official process, would you go into a booth and some guy would take a look at you, ask for your occupation, then give you a last name?

That would seem kind of weird, but I wasn’t able to find anything in my online searches, so if anyone has any ideas, I’d like to hear them.

By the way, I don’t know the real origin of my last name, so I provide the following explanation instead. A very possessive girl once had a boyfriend named Sam and she was so possessive, people started referring to him as ‘her Sam.’


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  1. I always supposed last names came into use as populations grew or migrated. For example, to distinguish between two chaps called Jack.

    “I spoke to Jack yesterday.”

    “Oh really, which Jack? Jack the Miller, Fred’s son, or that guy that just moved here from Windsor?”

    No doubt the taxman needed to keep tabs on which Jack had paid and which Jack hadn’t.

    Comment by Matt in London on August 4, 2005 @ 5:05 am
  2. Matt: That’s the crux of my question. Was it entirely evolutionary as people had to distinguish between others of the same name? What about government functions like military service or as you pointed out, taxes? Maybe it just happened over time…

    Comment by dan on August 4, 2005 @ 9:23 am
  3. My last name is French. Seems like a pretty obvious meaning.

    Comment by Chad on August 4, 2005 @ 1:31 pm
  4. wahahahahahahahahahahaha
    the language site says my last name comes from a chinese family that originated from a dude who completely slaughtered this branch of the royal family. wahahahah i pwn.

    or literally it means lotsa trees. woods.

    Comment by kenny on May 21, 2008 @ 1:38 pm
  5. I think last names came about by what people did whay back when!!! My last name is Bowles so my ancestor’s might have been potters. But other than that I really dont know where last names came frome.There are no lastnames in the Bible so we had to of come up with them over time.

    Comment by KAssie on August 4, 2010 @ 11:54 am

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