Prepared by Elisabeth Lindsay.
The word "surname" derives from the Middle English "surnom" meaning "modeled on or of" a name. In the earliest of times, people were known by a single name; as populations grew and political structures developed, a surname was assigned to differentiate people of the same name. Surnames often derived from one's parentage; this practice is often known as patronymics referring to name derived from the male ancestor. However, in some cultures surnames were also derived from female parent or ancestor, which would be known as matronymics. Other surnames were derived by a specific physical characteristic, geographic location, or occupation. Eventually, surnames became inherited and passed from one generation to the next.
It is a natural extension of family history research to be interested in the origins of the family surname. Many surnames can be traced and are commonly associated with specific countries or cultures. Surnames often identify the ethnic make-up of individual communities, as immigrants to a new land banded together, connected by a common language and tradition. The etymology or meaning of surnames is a fascinating and informative study that may give families and even greater connection to their heritage.