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A surname is a person's last or family name, as opposed to the first or given name. Surnames help place people within family groups. The use of family surnames came into practice somewhere between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries. Some say surnames were instituted by Napoleon as a way of showing respect, but more likely it was in response to a need to more accurately identify a growing population. In modern society, surnames are commonly inherited from the father, although that is not always the case. Surname studies may refer to DNA studies done by members of a given surname to establish ancestry, or it may mean studying the etymology (origin) and history of a particular surname.

Genealogy can be complicated by the naming conventions of different cultures. In Scandinavia and other countries surnames are derived from the first name of the father in a practice know as patronymics: the name Hanson, for example, means "son of Hans." In some Latin cultures, children are given two surnames, one inherited from the father and one inherited from the mother. Immigration is another factor complicating surnames. For a variety of reasons, many surnames were shortened or changed as immigrants came into America. Becoming aware of the naming conventions within a particular culture and during a particular time in history is important to research.

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