What does my name mean?

Where did My Last Name Come From?

My last name tells me something about my family history. Your last name tells something about yours too. Your name says a lot about you. If It is your given name, it can tell of what your parents wished for you when you were little. Or maybe it’s a second name, maybe it’s a memory of a relative or a significant person in your past. If you chose your own name, It could be as varied and unique as you are.


We get our names from literature, entertainment, family tradition, or a number of other sources. But surnames are a bit different. Your surname, or last name, carries a bit of the past with you. Every time you write your surname, you can see a bit of history. In this series of articles we are going to analyze last names from all around the world.

Where did last names come from?

Everyone has heard that the last name comes from occupations. That’s the reason there are so many unrelated smiths, and millers, and coopers in the world. What is interesting about last names is that they could come from anywhere. They also didn’t come around at the same time. In China, for instance, last names have been around for millennia. China wasn’t always a united country, and last names let you identify who was part of your clan, and who wasn’t. In England, last names weren’t widespread until the Normans invaded in 1066. Even in the 19th century, Japan and Korea weren’t using last names.

What does my last name mean?
                                  Not pictured: Last names

The Norman Invasion: Where did my English last name come from?

The Norman invasion of England shocked the English language, and the people who spoke it. The new rulers couldn’t speak the same language as the common folk. This pushed hundreds if not thousands of new terms into common everyday English. The tradition of last names was also brought into the culture. Most last names in English fall into a few categories.


1: Occupation: “Of course! I told you this!” You shout at your computer. Of course you were right, bravo. This is the most common names came from occupations. Instead of “John the Smith” or “Sarah the Farmer,” names became “John Smith,” or “Sarah Farmer”. Since you were already known in that town as “The person who does that job” it made sense. Even some non-occupation names actually are. For instance, A “Barker” is an old term for a leather tanner. Kellogg is an old English name for “Butcher”. So if you’re not sure what your name means, it may actually be an old job your family was known for.

                                A cooper makes barrels…
                                A Vintner makes wine…
                             A whiner makes complaints

2: Family Names:
Your father was very important in medieval Europe. If your father was noble born, you were destined for a long life of luxury and enjoyment. If your father was a peasant you were destined for a short life of meager living. It all depended on your father’s name. Anyone who is named “Johnson, Richardson,” or “Nealson” has probably heard this all of their lives. However, other names carry this idea as well. Many names that end in -S are simply an abbreviated “son” ending. Niles comes from Nileson. Perkins is short of “Perkinson.” One famous last name, or infamous, is the “Son of Nick,” This Richard didn’t go down in history as “Nickson.” Instead, his name morphed over time into what we see now, “Nixon”.

3: Locations or Descriptions:

IT makes sense that Richard London had a family near London, England. Or that Louise Armstrong was related to someone with strong arms. But there are dozens or hundreds of surnames that are actually descriptions. Acker, for instance, comes from an Middle English term for Field. So “Acker” was the last name of the man from the fields. Payne could mean villager, or from the middle English word for Heathen. The last name Read comes from Middle English as well, someone with a reddish hair or complexion. When it comes to descriptions or locations, this list could go on forever.

TL: DR Where Did My Last Name Come From?   What does my last name mean?

Your last name means a lot. Whether it’s a simple answer, or a complex web of translations, you carry a bit of history with you no matter where you go. Whether you’re a Baker, Nelson, or a heathen, be proud of your heritage. Next week we’re going to examine French last names.

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