It’s All in the Name: History of Surnames

Today they are mandatory, but surnames were a privilege during the Middle Ages in the Western world. Only nobles had an addition to their official name, usually linked to the region they were from. But as the population began to increase and move, a single name (even if it was compound) was no longer sufficient to distinguish inhabitants, and people began to be identified also by their craft, origin, fortune, physique and personality.

Gradually the habit of giving names spread and was being passed to new generations. In 1370, the word “surname” appeared in the official documents of various countries. After this point, the convention of naming people ‘after’ their father’s name appeared. In the UK, for instance, surnames such as Wilson (William Son – son of William); Johnson (John Son – son of John); appeared. Sometimes there was borrowing between languages, for example the English surname Fitzherbert, meaning ‘son of Herbert’ borrowed (and adapted) the French word for ‘son,’ which is ‘fils’.

In Scandinavian countries, there was a similar trend.  In Denmark, Norway and Sweden the convention was to add the word ‘sen’ or ‘son’ at the end of the father’s surname. So if a parent is called Peter, and has a son called Marcus, the surname of that child will be Marcus Petersen or Peterson (the latter mainly in Norway).


In the south of Europe, naming conventions were a little different. In Portugal, the actual name of the father became used in the surname of the child. Suppose there was a nobleman with the name of Rodrigo, who had a son called Fernando. Possibly his name would be Fernando Rodrigues (or in Spain, Rodriguez). The same rule applies to Fernando/ Fernandes, Marcos/Marques, Henrique/Henriques, and so on.

In Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, between the first name and family name a surname was used; usually an archaic form of the name of the father’s name. In Russian, the patronymic ending is ‘ovna’ for women, and ‘ovitch’ or ‘itch’ for men, for example Larissa Constantinovna and Boris Constantinovitch, children of Constantin.

In Poland, surnames are usually identifiable by the suffix -iak, -ski and -wicz, for example Szczepaniak (“son of Szczepan”), Józefski (” son of Józef “) or Kaźmirkiewicz (“son of Kazimierz “). Meanwhile in Croatia and Serbia, the equivalent patronymic Polish -wicz ends up as -vic. Milošević, for example, means “son of Miloš.”

In Romania, many names have the surname suffix -escu which corresponds to the Latin suffix -iscus, which means “belonging to the person.” For example, “Petrescu” is used for the son of Petre. The most common surnames are Popa (“the priest “) with almost 200,000 names, Popescu (“son of the Father”) with nearly 150,000 names and Ionescu (“son of Ion”).

What is your surname? Do you know the origin of it?

This blog was adapted from an original blog in Portuguese by Onério Neto on Language Trainer’s Brazilian blog.