Stupid Question ™
Sept. 13, 2001
By John Ruch
Q: When and where did last names come about?
A: While most name books invent some myth-of-progress story about surnames, there is no single when and where. Secondary names have turned up whenever and wherever it’s become culturally necessary (or convenient) due to large populations with similar given names.
The Chinese have had hereditary family names (though not really “surnames” since they put the family name before the personal name) since about 300 BC. And a friend of mine notes that we’re again inventing additional names for ourselves in our e-mail addresses, since our regular names aren’t distinctive enough.
However, the surname—a name used by all members of a family and transferred to the next generation—is a distinct creation from the more widespread phenomenon of the byname (a non-hereditary nickname a specific person goes by), which is the most usual response to the name problem.
But even the surname has had its ups and downs in Western culture. The early Romans (or free-born males, anyhow) had two names: the highly personal praenomen, and the nomen, which was hereditary within a large family clan. The choice of names in both categories was highly limited, so pretty soon there were a lot of people with the same name, and lots of confusion.
So the noble families (and later everybody) started using a third name—the cognomen, a hereditary family surname, which was common practice by circa 100 BC. They usually developed from personal names, themselves developed from nicknames, like Tacitus (“silent”). Thus, male Roman citizens in the republic and empire had three names. For example, Gaius Julius Caesar, who was Gaius to his pals and Julius Caesar to the masses.
As the population grew, the praenomen and nomen went extinct. As the empire fell, many people stuck with their single “barbarian” names; many Romans went only by their cognomens (sometimes two of them). And the rising Christians often used just one name (the signum) taken from the Bible or their own imaginations.
So by the early medieval period, it was back to one name again. Especially under Christian influence, many people were given the same name, so bynames came into widespread use by the late 1000s. Simple descriptive nicknames, they weren’t always flattering: Drunkard and Shameless are known examples.
Nonetheless, aristocratic and urban families started fixing bynames into hereditary family surnames. This trickled down to regular folks and was common practice throughout Europe by the late 1500s (with the notable example of the Ashkenazi Jews, who were forced—sometimes cruelly—to take surnames in the 1800s so governments could keep track of them).
The convenience of personal bynames is obvious, but limited. They didn’t indicate family relationships; a person could even go by various bynames. Official surnames were for the convenience of the new legal and financial bureaucracies that sprang up in the medieval period. Fixed surnames made land transfers, taxation, wills and the like much easier to carry out.