Where Do Surnames Come From?

Wooden signs with different last names nailed onto a tree trunk.

Richard Felber/Photolibrary/Getty Images

By tracing the possible origin of your last name, you can learn more about your ancestors who first bore the surname and, ultimately, handed it down to you. Surname meanings can sometimes tell a story about your family that goes back hundreds of years. It can reflect where they lived, their profession, a description of them physically, or their own ancestry. The establishment of a family name would have started by class, with the wealthy landowners using them for identification before rural peasants. It may have changed over the decades, so some ancestors' names may take some creativity in searching.

Search Origins 

If you know your ethnic origin, you may be able to find out more about your last name through lists of meanings and etymologies by ethnicity. If you are not sure of the name's origin, try starting with the 100 most popular U.S. surnames.

Generational Name Changes

In a patronymic method, a person may have decided his last name would trace his family line by who his father was: Johnson (son of John) or Olson (son of Ole), for example. This name wouldn't be applied to the whole family, however. For a time, the surnames changed with each generation. In an example of such a system, Ben Johnson's son would then be Dave Benson. Another person establishing a last name might have chosen the name based on where he lived (such as Appleby, a city or a farm raising apples, or Atwood), his job (Tanner or Thatcher), or some defining characteristic (such as Short or Red, which may have morphed into Reed) which could also change by generation.

The establishment of permanent surnames for a group of people could have happened anywhere from the second century to the 15th century — or even much later. In Norway, for example, permanent last names started becoming the practice in about 1850 and were widespread by 1900. But it didn't actually become law to adopt a permanent last name there until 1923. It can also be tricky to identify which person is which in a search, as families may have similar naming orders for sons and daughters, for example, with the first-born son always named John.

Spelling Changes

When searching for the origin or etymology of your surname, consider that your last name may not have always been spelled the way it is today. Even through at least the first half of the 20th century, it is not unusual to see the same individual's last name spelled in many different ways from record to record. For example, you might see the seemingly easy-to-spell surname Kennedy spelled as Kenedy, Canady, Kanada, Kenneday, and even Kendy due to clerks, ministers, and other officials spelling the name as they heard it pronounced. Sometimes, alternate variants stuck and were passed down to future generations. It is even not that uncommon to see siblings passing down different variants of the same original surname.

It's a myth, the Smithsonian says, that immigrants to the United States often had their last names "Americanized" by Ellis Island inspectors as they came off the boat. Their names would have first been written down on the ship's manifest when the immigrants boarded in their country of origin. The immigrants themselves could have changed their names to sound more American, or their names could have been difficult to understand by the person taking it down. If a person transferred ships during the journey, the spelling could change from ship to ship. The inspectors at Ellis Island processed people based on the languages they themselves spoke, so they may have been making corrections to spellings when immigrants arrived.

If the people you're searching had names spelled in a different alphabet, such as immigrants from China, the Middle East, or Russia, the spellings could vary widely among census, immigration, or other official documents, so be creative with your searches.

Research Tips for Common Names

All the background knowledge about how names came about and could have changed is well and good, but how do you go about actually searching for a particular person, especially if the surname is common? The more information you have on a person, the easier it will be to narrow down the information.

  • Learn as much about the person as possible. Birth and death dates are very helpful to narrow people down, and if you can add a middle name, so much the better. But even knowing his or her occupation could help separate your ancestor from another one in the same town. 
  • Keep a list of the person's dates as you find them to help narrow down search results, as minor children wouldn't be buying land or paying taxes, for example. 
  • If you can, connect the person to someone with a more unusual name. If you know the person married someone in a certain year or had a sibling of a certain age, that can help narrow your search.
  • Learn about the person's connections as much as possible. Knowing one person's city address in a census year can help you find his or her children or siblings — or anyone else who lived in the same household — because old census records went street by street. 
  • Land and tax records can help narrow down the right person in a rural setting or they can help exclude the rural folks from a city dweller. Keep track of plat identifying information. Two cousins named Robert Smith may have lived near each other, so having land parcel numbers (and finding them on a map) can help separate the men and their family groups.
  • Try "wildcard" searches using asterisks in place of some letters, so you don't have to get the name spelled perfectly in your searches.
  • Digging through scores of records can be frustrating, but staying organized with charts can help narrow down whether you've already crossed off one particular John Jones from your list or whether another from a similar age and city is actually the person you're seeking.


Ault, Alicia. "Did Ellis Island Officials Really Change the Names of Immigrants?" Smithsonian, December 28, 2016.

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Powell, Kimberly. "Where Do Surnames Come From?" ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/surname-meanings-and-origins-s2-1422408. Powell, Kimberly. (2021, February 16). Where Do Surnames Come From? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/surname-meanings-and-origins-s2-1422408 Powell, Kimberly. "Where Do Surnames Come From?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/surname-meanings-and-origins-s2-1422408 (accessed March 26, 2023).