Origins of Last Names


We take having a last name for granted, but last names, or family names, did not exist until after 1600. They started developing during that century and only gradually became the standard.


Contrary to what you might think, these famous people did NOT have a last name–

Leonardo da Vinci –really Leonardo from Vinci (the province of Vinci)

Jesus Christ–Jesus did not have a last name. No one in the Bible did. Christ is a title that means messiah.

King Henry VIII–He was just Henry. The designation of  VIII (the eighth) is just part of his title. When needed, his family line was specified  by saying “of the house of Tudor” (same with all the kings).

On the other hand…

Christopher Columbus actually represents the very beginning of the use of surnames, or family names, as a last name. Columbus is the last name of Christopher’s father also, just as a last name usually is, and it is an Americanization of the Italian Colombo. It represents the family line and is a common surname in the area where Columbus was born.


Last names developed gradually from designating people according to:

1. place (as in Columbus)

Glenn, brook, Marsh, Chappel, Glade

Forrest, Smallwood, Fields

 2. occupation

Tanner, Smith, Miller, Hammer, Cooper, Bowman, Butcher

3. “Son of” or “descendant of”

Johnson,Thompson mean “John’s son”  or “Thom’s son.” Same for Jackson, Jones, etc.

“Ben” also means “son of” in Hebrew. Thus, Ben Laden literally means “son of Laden” (as in Osama Ben Laden), Ben Gurion (son of Gurion), Benjamin (son of Jamin).

Mac and Mc also mean “son of”  as in McDonald which means “son of Donald.”

O’ = Irish shortening of the word “of,” so O’Malley means “of Malley” or son of Malley.

4. Other characteristics: hair color, physical handicaps, any distinguishing marks–

Campbell – Scottish tribe, Gaelic for “crooked mouth

Roth – roth was old high German for “red” – prob. red hair

-Ó Ruaidh: Irish, means “descendant of Red”, ruadh is from the Gaelic meaning “red”

(obviously, having red hair was big deal and most languages had a designation for red haired people which turned into some kind of modern day last name)


Last names often have family legends attached to them. My mother’s maiden name was Napier. We know that the Napier Clan is Scottish and has it’s own Scottish tartan, but there was also a story my grandmother would repeat on occasion that the King of Scotland, at some unspecified point in history, dubbed our ancestor a knight and said “Thou has na pier in Scotland,” meaning Thou hast no peer , that is, no one is equal to you. But when I did a search on the origins of the name Napier, I found that it comes from the occupation of the napier, the person who kept the linens (napkins) and such clean and in order in a rich household or castle. Alas, I am descended from a servant! And probably from some horse thieves, too, as are we all.

Research idea:

Find out the meaning of your last name. Also, look up the last names of your mother before she married (her maiden name), and your grandmother’s maiden names. You may be surprised by your own lineage and from what or where the names are derived.