Difference between Surname and Last Name

Key Difference: Surname is also known as family name. A surname is the family name which a person shares with other family members. It is generally passed from one generation to the other. Last name also generally refer to surname. In most of the societies, the last name that follows the first name is surname. This logic of determining surname does not apply to countries like China, Japan and Korea, where the pattern is reverse, the first name comes after the surname.

Names are important part of our identity. We are recognized by our names in the society. Sometimes specifically our last name or surname may be asked. Some people may have some doubts about the difference between a last name and surname. There is no difference between a surname and a last name, both indicate the family name.  The definitions of both can be referred from Oxford dictionary. 

It defines surname as

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

It defines last name as

       ‘one’s surname’

For example- in the full name ‘Mark Long’, Mark is the first name as well as the forename. Long represents the family name or can be referred as the surname. As the term long appears in the last of full name, it can also be known as the last name.

The term 'surname' is supposed to be derived from medieval French word 'surnom' meaning “above-or-over name". Surname is the name that we share with our family members. The logic behind the surname or last name is simple. Generally, it gets inherited from the father's surname. For example, if x is son of y then x will have the same surname as y. However, in some cases the surnames can also be derived from the mother's original surname. If z is sister of x, then x and z will share the same surname. If z gets married then she might acquire the surname of her husband. Now, one might wonder about the father’s surname. The same logic applies here; he must have got his surname from his father. Thus, this link may refer to our ancestors.

How the ancestors got their surnames? This question is obvious and thus needs to be answered. Long time back, the societies consisted of small groups and thus referring to a person by his or her first name was sufficient. Then, later at the Middle Ages, groups expanded in size and more and more people were residing in the same village. It meant that many people had same first names and thus, it became little difficult to refer to a person by only his or her first name; as the name may be confused with the same name of other person. Thus, surnames were originated in order to have an additional name. Most of these names were based on the profession of the person. For example- a person whose livelihood was based on fishes might have got the surname 'Fisher'.

The relation between the surname and the reason behind naming them can be easily seen in these few examples:- 




some ancestor must be living at or near an estate gate


some ancestor must be living near the shop sign of a rabbit


some ancestor’s given or first name must be Peter and his son’s surname would have become Peterson         


some ancestor must be very tall or the nickname for the person must be long

The surname or last name 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.

Various surnames are used throughout the world, and thus surnames may have different interpretation from one another. After reading this article, you must now be thinking about origin of your surname. Go ahead! And decode this interesting genealogy term.  

Image Courtesy: edsitement.neh.gov

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