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Discover Your Last {{ lastNameToQuery | capitalize }} Name Origin & Meaning

Research your family history to discover who you are and where you come from.

Your last name holds clues into your family history. Whether you have a common or unique last name, learning the meaning behind your name can unlock new details of your genealogy.

It's more than just about what your name means. It's about your family history and your ancestor's journey which helped shape who you are today. Start with two simple questions, "What's my last name origin?" and "What does my last name mean?" to watch your family history come to life.

Enter Your Last Name.

Discover who you are and where you come from.

Last Name Origin: How much do you know about your last name?

  • A last name meaning search can reveal:
    • Where your family lived in the United States
    • Your family's national origin - Ireland, German, Italy, and more!
    • When your ancestors immigrated to the United States
    • An ancestor’s occupation or nickname

Surname Origins & Your Family History

Most European surnames can be traced back to the Medieval Times in the 13th and 14th centuries. During this period, last names were recorded as societies started collecting taxes and became more bureaucratic.

Early last names were often linked to occupations, geographical features such as where your home was in the village, a nickname, physical feature, or even a combination of the mother's and father's name. Eventually, most people adopted patronymic names inherited from their fathers.

Asking, "What nationality is my last name?" may confirm (or disprove) some long-accepted beliefs about your family's roots including their ethnic origin. Perhaps there are other countries (and relatives) attached to your family tree that you had never considered before.

The genealogy behind your last name is more than just finding the meaning from a surnames list. Tracing your last name origin can help you gleam new insights into your family history and even about yourself. After all, your name is piece of your identity.

Use our free last name meaning search populated with data from U.S. Census records, the Social Security Death Index, newspaper archives and more!

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Where do surnames come from?

Humans have used more than one name to make it easier to distinguish one person from another who may have the same name. As communities grew and societies developed, the distinguishing names became fixed. People also started passing a certain name from generation to generation, creating the origins of a family name.

The story behind the surname depends on the society’s priorities at the time people started adopting surnames. Societies that were hunter-oriented based their surnames on events, religious connotations, or characteristics of the individual. Less developed societies commonly used surnames derived from the father's name. Communities that were more technically superior based their surnames on occupations, place of residence, or social status.

However, just because a person carries the last name Tailor doesn't mean that an individual's occupation has anything to do with tailoring. Someone from their family was once a tailor and they passed on their distinguishing name to their children, and so on. Fast forward a hundred years later, when someone carries the last name Taylor or Tailor, you may say with great certainty that one of their ancestors practiced tailoring as a profession.

Surnames occurred in various periods across different regions. They were first adopted in England in the 11th and 16th centuries.

Do surnames have meanings like first names do?

Last name meanings can tell you a lot about the origins of your ancestors. Surname meanings can be categorized into the most common types:

  • Occupational surnames derived from an ancestor's profession can be divided into two groups: standard and titular occupations. For example,
    the name origin of someone with the last name Stewart links back to an ancient clan title in Scotland.

  • Topographical surnames are usually derived from landscapes (Ford, Hill, Rivers) or town or place names (London, Austin.) At first, families that held land adopted the surnames derived from place-names. However, as people started moving from one place to another, it became more common for them to choose a surname derived from the name of a certain place.

  • Descriptive surnames were most often derived from insulting characteristics, which is why they are less common. People got surnames based on characteristics such as baldness, stupidity, greediness, or even straightforward insults such as the surname Blackinthemouth. Many insulting descriptive surnames have disappeared. Luckily, there are still many surnames derived from positive characteristics, such as Good, Young, White, Angel, Goodman, etc.

  • Matronymic surnames are those derived from a female ancestor's name and are very uncommon in many parts of the world. They usually arose due to illegitimate births, or among nobility when the mother enjoyed higher social ranking than her spouse.

Why are some surnames so much more common than others?

The culture the progenitor lived in and their social status will greatly influence a surname origin. People of high social status usually took surnames that are fairly uncommon today. Whereas, people of the lower social class took surnames that are very common today. People of lesser social status had much less control over their surnames, especially during feudalism. They were often handed to them by authorities such as lords or big community landowners. This is why you will find many common insulting surnames, such as Purcell – that literally means "little pig" in old English, or Barrett which means "fraud" and describes a deceiving man.

Some of the most widely-found surnames are job-related because our ancestors widely practiced certain occupations.

The surname Smith, for example, was shared by 2,442,977 Americans in the 2010 census. The name origins refer to a smith, a person who works with metal. Smith has been used as an occupational surname since the Anglo-Saxon period. Based on a widely-spread occupation, the surname quickly became one of the most common surnames in many English-speaking countries. Many Smiths have been given the surname precisely because of its popularity, even though they had no connection to the occupation.

Surnames derived from father's names are also common, especially those derived from John, Thomas, or Williams, since those three names were the most common for a long time.

What can your surname tell you about your history?

Your surname meaning can help you discover many interesting things about your ancestry, including your last name origins and nationality. However, you can find so much more behind the name.

In addition to ethnic last name origin, you will discover if your name is habitational, occupational, or descriptive. You may even discover where your surname first appeared.

If you wonder what your last name means, a simple search can help you discover some or all of the following:

  • Where in the U.S. your ancestors lived
  • The national origin of your family
  • When your ancestors came to the United States from their home countries
  • Their occupation, distinguishing characteristics, and social status

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