Difference between Surname and First Name

Key Difference: First name is the name given to a person and is used as the main identification attribute for the person. It is generally given at birth or baptism. First name is also known as forename. Surname is the family name and is preceded by middle name and first name. The most important different between a surname and a first name is that a first name could be anything, whereas one shares his or her surname with other family members.

Everyone has a first name and a surname. Both play a vital role in the identity of a person. Some people may get confuse between these both terms. Therefore, in this article we will discuss the differences between them. Let us consider definitions of both from Oxford Dictionary.

It defines first name as

‘a personal name given to someone at birth or baptism and used before a family name’

It defines surname as

 ‘a hereditary name common to all members of a family, as distinct from a forename or given name

For example- in the full name ‘John Taylor’, John is the first name as well as the forename. Taylor represents the family name or can be referred as the surname. However, in few countries like Japan, the surname comes before the given name.

The first source for names used in Britain and throughout the English-speaking world is supposed to be the Bible - male names like Adam, Benjamin, David, Jacob, Joseph came into existence from this source and similarly female names like Deborah, Eve, Rebecca, Ruth, Sarah also got introduced. In India, a naming ceremony known as ‘naamkaran’ usually takes place after the birth of the child. In this ceremony, the name is decided for the child and is regarded a very auspicious event. Similarly, there are various traditions that are followed world wide related to naming ceremony of a child.

Family name is the name that we share with our family members. For example, John is the son of Mr. Peter Smith.  John is the name that is given to him, therefore ‘John’ is his first name. His father has ‘Peter’ as his first name. ‘Peter’ precedes ‘Smith’ and therefore, Smith represents the family name. As John, is the son of Mr. Smith, he shares his family name with his father and therefore his full name would be John Smith. In the full name of John Smith, John denotes the first name and Smith denotes the family name.

Earlier, in the starting of middle ages, people were happy with just their first names, but as the societies tend to grow larger, it became a necessity to have a secondary name to refer to a person. Most of the people had same name as many other people, thus the idea of surname came into existence and was adopted very soon. These names were based on the occupation, locality or any other attribute associated with the person.

The surname can be either patronymic or metronymic. Patronymic means that the last name of a person would be same as the last name of father or we can also say that a son and father will share the same surname. However, in metronymic the child is given the same surname as the mother of the child is having. Most of the societies believe and work on patronymic systems. In many countries like India, a woman after getting married acquires the surname of her husband. Today, scenarios are changing and many women are also opting to keep the same surname as they had earlier, prior to their marriage. 

Both first name and surname are a part of a person’s identity. The first name and surname are therefore connected to each other. However, the major difference between them is that a first name can be anything, it does not show any characteristic of the history involved with the name, whereas the surname can give you a lot of information about your origin. Surnames may tell you that what your ancestors were like and where they come from. A lot of studies have been done in order to research on this particular field. People want to know about their ancestors and surnames can be their first introduction to the past.  First name can be regarded as one’s individual identity, whereas surname can be defined as the family’s identity. Surnames are also generally used in titles, like Mr. "last name" or Miss "last name". 

Image Courtesy: babynameslog.com, edsitement.neh.gov

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