Surnames: Different countries, different traditions

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Family History / Blog 153 Views

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.


Are you curious about your surname? Find out your family history over at ancestry.

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