Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Dianna from AL. Dianna Wonders, “Where did my last name come from?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Dianna!

Do you like social studies? Learning about the past can be so much fun. It’s great to learn about where we’ve been and how the past shapes the future.

Of course, it can be hard to remember lots of dates. Not to mention all those names! George Washington. Amelia Earhart. Malcolm X. Eleanor Roosevelt. Rosa Parks. Benjamin Franklin. 

How did all those people get those last names? Actually, how did you get your last name? Have you ever WONDERed about that?

Your last name may have come from your parents. But where did they get it? If you keep tracing things back in time, your last name had to start somewhere, right? So how did that work?

Many modern American last names — also called surnames — can be traced back to medieval Europe. That’s because when Europeans colonized North America, they brought their last names with them.

In the Middle Ages, most Europeans lived in small villages separated by large areas of farmland. People rarely met those from other villages. Everyone knew everyone else in their village, so there wasn’t really a need for last names.

Over time, though, villages and populations grew. People traveled more. They traded with other places. Soon, they needed a way to tell the difference between people with the same name.  Last names started as a way to separate one “John” from another “John.”

Last names had many sources. However, they can be put into four groups: patronymic, locative, occupational or status, and nicknames. The first surnames were quite simple. They became more diverse and complex over the years.

Patronymic names identify people as their fathers’ children. For example, a father named Richard might have a daughter named Brooke. She might have become known as Brooke Richards.

Likewise, a father named John might have adopted a son named Stephen. Stephen may have gone by the name Stephen Johnson. That would mean he was the Stephen who was John’s son.

Locative surnames identify people based on where they were born, lived, or worked. For example, Sara York was probably the Sara who lived in the town of York. Locative names could also refer to a land feature. Theodore Underhill or Karen Atwood probably got their names from references to hills or woods near where they lived.

Occupational or status names were also common. They were based on jobs or social status. Andrea Baker was probably the Andrea in the village who was a baker. Robert Knight might have chosen his surname to reflect his social standing as a knight.

Other common last names were based on nicknames. These were usually words that described a person in some way. These may have been based on size (long, short, little) or a personality characteristic (stout, stern, jolly).

Of course, surnames are used differently in many parts of the world. Across much of Asia and Africa, the surname isn’t called the “last name.” That’s because it usually comes first when written or spoken, before the given name. Chinese surnames were also originally passed down by mothers; this changed to fathers in the 17th Century. 

Where did your last name come from? Could it have been a distant ancestor’s occupation? Maybe it tells you what your great-great-great-great grandparents looked like! Today, some people even create their own last names to fit their personalities or beliefs. Whatever your last name is, there’s definitely a story behind it. Do some digging and find out what it is!

Standards: CCRA.L.3, CCRA.L.6, CCRA.R.4, CCRA.R.1, CCRA.R.2, CCRA.R.10, CCRA.SL.1

Wonder What's Next?

You’re crazy if you think there’s not enough time for tomorrow’s Wonder of the Day!