Where Did Last Names Come From, How Did Surnames Originate, and What Do they Mean?

In the Middle Ages, most common people didn’t have a last name.

Many of our familiar surnames came from the necessity to distinguish between two people with the same first name by adding their occupation, location, or a physical characteristic.

William the tanner and William the blacksmith became William Tanner and William Smith.

Poor country people who worked the land took the name of their land lord, so a regal surname usually doesn’t mean regal ancestry.

Other occupational last names:

Taylor — makes or repairs clothing
Carter — makes or repairs carts
Miller — ground flour from grain
Wainwright — wagon builder
Bishop — worked with a bishop

Last names with geographic origins:

Atwood — one who lives near the forest
Eastman — one who is from east of here
Westwood — one who is from the western forest
Dunlop — from the muddy hill
Churchill — lives near a church on a hill

About Karen Hill

Karen Hill is a freelance writer, editor, and columnist. Born in New York, her work has appeared in the Examiner, Yahoo News, Buzzfeed, among others.

1 thought on “Where Did Last Names Come From, How Did Surnames Originate, and What Do they Mean?”

  1. I’ve always wondered where we came from our given names, like where did I get my last name? I’ve tried to do research but have come up empty handed. When I ask family members I get the big question mark. Please if you know of any links that would direct me in the right direction for the answers I’m seeking I would greatly appreciate it. Thank-you! Conrad of Edmonton, Alberta Canada

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