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In many cases, a surname is a family name and many dictionaries define "surname" as a synonym of "family name". In the western hemisphere, it is commonly synonymous with "last name", since it is usually placed at the end of a person's given name.
In most Hispanophone and Lusophone countries, two or more last names (or surnames) may be used. In China, along with Hungary, Japan, Korea, Madagascar, Vietnam, parts of India and in many other East Asian countries, the family name is placed before a person's given name.
The style of having both a family name (surname) and a given name (forename or Christian name) is far from universal. In many countries it is common for ordinary people to have only one name or mononym.
The concept of a 'surname' is a relatively recent historical development, evolving from a medieval naming practice called a 'byname'. Based on an individual's occupation or area of residence, a byname would be used in situations where more than one person had the same name.
In some cultures, including those of most Western countries, the surname or family name ("last name") is placed after the personal or given name ("first name"). In other cultures the surname is placed first, followed by the given name or names; this is the case in Hungary, parts of Romania, South India, Sri Lanka, Madagascar and countries in the Chinese cultural sphere including Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam and China.
In Japan, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, when people write their personal name in the Latin alphabet, it is common to reverse the order of the given and family names for the convenience of Westerners, so that they know which name is the family name for official/formal purposes. Reversing the order of names for the same reason is also customary for the Baltic Fennic peoples and the Hungarians, but other Uralic peoples traditionally did not have surnames, perhaps because of the clan structure of their societies. Surnames have been imposed by the dominant authorities: evangelists, then administrations. Thus, the Samis saw no change or a transformation of their name, for example: some Sire became Siri, Hætta Jáhkoš Ásslat became Aslak Jacobsen Hætta — as was the norm. However recently, integration into the EU and increased communications with foreigners prompted many Samis to reverse the order of their full name to given name followed by surname, to avoid their given name being mistaken for and used as a surname.
Indian surnames often denote caste, profession, village etc. and are invariably mentioned along with the personal names. However, hereditary last names are not universal. In Indian passports the surname is shown first. In telephone directories the surname is used for collation. In North Indian states the surname is placed after given names where it exists. In south India, where use of two names is by no means universal, surname is placed before personal name and in most cases it is only shown as an initial (for example 'S.' for Suryapeth).
In English, although the usual order of names is "first middle last", for the purpose of cataloging in libraries and in citing the names of authors in scholarly papers, the order is changed to "last, first middle", with the last and first names separated by a comma, and items are alphabetized by the last name.
While surnames are usually one word, in some cases, known as compound surnames, a surname comprises more than one word.
In most Spanish-speaking countries, the custom is for people to have two surnames. Thus, for instance, Spanish ex-premier José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero has José Luis as his given name, Rodríguez as his first (i.e. paternal) surname, and Zapatero as his second (i.e. maternal) surname.
This custom, however, is not seen in the Hispanic world as being a true compound surname system per se, since it is widely understood that the first surname denotes one's father's family, and the second surname denotes one's mother's family. So "Rodríguez Zapatero" is not in fact one surname, it is two distinct surnames.
Given that it is not a true compound surname, his children do not inherit the "compound" surname "Rodríguez Zapatero". Only the paternal surname of both father and mother are passed on. The father's paternal surname becomes the child's own paternal surname, while the mother's paternal surname becomes the child's second surname (as the child's own maternal surname). Thus, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero would pass on only Rodríguez to his children as their first (i.e. paternal) surname.
Beyond this seemingly "compound" surname system in the Hispanic world, there are also true compound surnames in the Spanish-speaking countries. These true compound surnames are passed on, and inherited, as compounds. Thus, for instance, former Chairman of the Supreme Military Junta of Ecuador, General Luis Telmo Paz y Miño Estrella, has Luis as his first given name, Telmo as his middle name, the true compound surname Paz y Miño as his first (i.e. paternal) surname, and Estrella as his second (i.e. maternal) surname.
Thus, Luis Telmo Paz y Miño Estrella is also known more casually as Luis Paz y Miño, Telmo Paz y Miño, or Luis Telmo Paz y Miño. He would never be regarded as Luis Estrella, or Telmo Estrella, or Luis Telmo Estrella, nor as Luis Paz, or Telmo Paz, or Luis Telmo Paz. This is because "Paz" alone is not his surname, although "Paz" on its own exists as a surname.
In this case, Paz y Miño is in fact the paternal surname, being a true compound surname. His children, therefore, would inherit the compound surname "Paz y Miño" as their paternal surname, while Estrella would be lost, since the mother's paternal surname becomes the children's second surname (as their own maternal surname). "Paz" alone would not be passed on, nor would "Miño" alone.
To avoid ambiguity, one might often informally see these true compound surnames hyphenated, for instance, as Paz-y-Miño. This is true especially in the Anglosphere, but also sometimes even in the Hispanic world, since to many Hispanics unfamiliar with this and other compound surnames, "Paz y Miño" might be inadvertently mistaken as "Paz" for the paternal surname and "Miño" for the maternal surname. Although Miño did start off as the maternal surname in this compound surname, it was many generations ago, around five centuries, that it became compounded, and henceforth inherited and passed on as a compound.
Other surnames which started off as compounds of two or more surnames, but which merged into one single word, also exist. An example would be the surname Pazmiño, whose members are related to the Paz y Miño, as both descend from the "Paz Miño" family of five centuries ago.
Unlike other true compound surnames, which resulted from the merging of a previously paternal and maternal surname, the Álava compound surname is characterized for having the first portion of the surname as a patronymic, normally a Spanish patronymic (i.e. from the Castilian language) or more seldomly a Basque language patronymic, followed by the preposition "de", with the second part of the surname being a local toponymic surname from Álava. While this form of compound surname can be found in other regions of Spain, albeit scarcely, it is only in Álava that it has persisted. These type of customary compound surnames used to be found throughout Guipúzcoa, Navarra, Soria, Logroño, and most of Green Spain generally (i.e. the Spanish northern maritime façade exposed to the Atlantic Ocean which runs along the coastal strip lying north of the Cantabrian and Basque mountains, along the Bay of Biscay.)
Compound surnames in English (and several other European cultures) feature two (or occasionally more) words, often joined by a hyphen or hyphens. However, it is not unusual for compound surnames to be composed of separate words not linked by a hyphen, for example Iain Duncan Smith, a former leader of the British Conservative Party, whose surname is "Duncan Smith".
Name etymologists classify European surnames under five categories, depending on their origin: given name, occupational name, location name, nickname, and ornamental name. This classification can be extended to surnames originating elsewhere.
These may be a simple first name such as "Wilhelm", a patronymic such as "Andersen", a matronymic such as "Beaton"[needs better example], or a clan name such as "O'Brien". Multiple surnames may be derived from a single given name: e.g. there are thought to be over 90 Italian surnames based on the given name "Giovanni".
Occupational names include such simple examples as Smith, Miller, Farmer, Thatcher, Shepherd etc. as well as non-English ones such "Eisenhauer" (iron worker, later Anglicized in America as "Eisenhower") or "Schneider" (tailor). There are also more complicated names based on occupational titles. In England it was common for servants to take a modified version of their employer's occupation or first name as their last name, adding the letter "s" to the word, although this formation could also be a patronymic. For instance, the surname "Vickers" is thought to have arisen as an occupational name adopted by the servant of a vicar, while "Roberts" could have been adopted by either the son or the servant of a man named Robert. A subset of occupational names in English are names thought to be derived from the medieval mystery plays. The participants would often play the same roles for life, passing the part down to their oldest sons. Names derived from this may include "King", "Lord", "Virgin", and "Death"; the last is often wrongly thought to be an Anglicization of the French name "D'Ath". It is now thought that the surname "D'Ath" arose well after the surname "Death" was first used. Vaidyar is another instance of occupational surname prevailed in Kerala, a southern state in India, particularly among the families who traditionally followed the medical practice of Ayurveda.
Location (toponymic, habitation) names derive from the inhabited location associated with the person given that name. Such locations can be any type of settlement, such as: homesteads, farms, enclosures, villages, hamlets, strongholds or cottages. One element of a habitation name may describe the type of settlement. Examples of Old English elements frequently found in the second element of habitational names The habitative elements in such names can differ in meaning, according to different periods, different locations, or with being used with certain other elements. For example, the Old English element tūn may have originally meant "enclosure" in one name, but can have meant "farmstead", "village", "manor", or "estate" in other names.
Location names, or habitation names, may be as generic as "Monte" (Portuguese for "mountain"), "Górski" (Polish for "hill") or "Pitt" (variant of "pit"), but may also refer to specific locations. "Washington", for instance, is thought to mean "the homestead of the family of Wassa", while "Lucci" likely means "resident of Lucca". Although some surnames (such as "London", "Lisboa" or "Bialystok") are derived from large cities, more people reflect the names of smaller communities, as in Ó Creachmhaoil, derived from a village in County Galway. This is thought to be due to the tendency in Europe during the Middle Ages for migration to chiefly be from smaller communities to the cities, and the need for new arrivals to choose a defining surname.
In Portuguese-speaking countries, it is not uncommon to find surnames derived from names of countries, such as Portugal, França, Brasil, Holanda.
Many Japanese surnames derive from geographical features; for example, Ishikawa (石川) means "stone river", Yamamoto (山本) means "the base of the mountain", and Inoue (井上) means "above the well".
Arabic names sometimes contain surnames that denote the city of origin, for example, in cases of Saddam Hussein al Tikriti, meaning Saddam Hussein of Tikrit, a city in Iraq. This component of the name is called a nisbah.
These include names, also known as eke-names, based on appearance such as "Schwartzkopf", "Short", and probably "Caesar", and names based on temperament and personality such as "Daft", "Gutman", and "Maiden", which according to a number of sources was an English nickname meaning "effeminate". When Jewish families in Central Europe were forced to adopt surnames in the 18th and 19th centuries, those who failed to choose a surname were often given pejorative or even cruel nicknames (such as "Schweinmann" ("pig man") or "Schmutz" (a variant of "filthy")) by the local registrar. Many families later changed these names.
Ornamental names as surnames are more common in communities which adopted (or were forced to adopt) surnames in the 18th and 19th centuries, and are common among Jewish families and in Scandinavia. Examples include "Morgenstern" ("morning star"), "Safire" ("sapphire"), and "Reis" ("branch"). In some cases, such as Chinese Indonesians and Chinese Thais, certain ethnic groups are subject to political pressure to change their surnames, in which case surnames can lose their family-name meaning. For instance, Indonesian business tycoon Liem Swie Liong (林绍良) "indonesianised" his name to Sudono Salim. In this case "Liem" (林) was rendered by "Salim", a name of Arabic origin, while "Sudono", a Javanese name with the honorific prefix "su-" of Sanskrit origin, was supposed to be a rendering of "Swie Liong". During the Trans-Atlantic slave trade (of Africans) many Africans lost their native names and were forced to take the surnames of their slave masters and any given name the slave master desired.
In some cultures, such as Greek, Russian, Slovak, Czech, etc. surnames change form depending on the gender of the bearer. For example in Greece, if a man called Papadopoulos has a daughter, she will likely be named Papadopoulou (if the couple have decided their offspring will take the father's surname), since that name has a female version. In Poland, if the husband is named Podwiński, and his wife takes his surname, her last name, and those of their unmarried daughters, would be Podwińska. The sons would be known as Podwiński. In Lithuania, if the husband is named Vilkas, his wife will be named Vilkienė and his daughter will be named Vilkaitė. In Slovakia and Czech Republic alike, if a man is called Novák, the wife adds a feminine suffix "-ová" to his surname after the marriage, hence Nováková. The same is true for daughters which almost always inherit the father's surname with the feminine suffix.
The meanings of some names are unknown or unclear. The most common European name in this category may be the Irish name "Ryan", which means little king in Irish Gaelic  Other surnames may have arisen from more than one source: the name "De Luca", for instance, likely arose either in or near Lucania or in the family of someone named Lucas or Lucius; in some instances, however, the name may have arisen from Lucca, with the spelling and pronunciation changing over time and with emigration. The same name may appear in different cultures by coincidence or romanization; the surname Lee is used in English culture, but is also a romanization of the Chinese surname Li. Surname origins have been the subject of much folk etymology.
Surnames were uncommon prior to the 12th century, and still somewhat rare into the 13th; most European surnames were originally occupational or locational, and served to distinguish one person from another if they happened to live near one another (e.g., two different people named John could conceivably be identified as 'John Butcher' and 'John Chandler'). This still happens, in some communities where a surname is particularly common, for example on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland, many residents have the family name MacLeod (son of Lewis) and so may still be known by a surname symbolising their occupation such as 'Kevin the post' and 'Kevin Handbag'
In French Canada until the 19th century, several families adopted surnames that followed the family name in order to distinguish the various branches of a large family. Such a surname was preceded by the word "dit" ("said") and was known as a "nom-dit" ("said-name"). (Compare with some Roman naming conventions.) While this tradition is no longer in use, in many cases the nom-dit has come to replace the original family name. Thus the Bourbeau family has split into Bourbeau dit Verville, Bourbeau dit Lacourse, and Bourbeau dit Beauchesne. In many cases Verville, Lacourse, or Beauchesne has become the new family name. Likewise, the Rivard family has split into the Rivard dit Lavigne, Rivard dit Loranger and Rivard dit Lanoie. The origin of the nom-dit can vary. Often it denoted a geographical trait of the area where that branch of the family lived: Verville lived towards the city, Beauchesne lived near an oak tree, Larivière near a river, etc. Some of the oldest noms-dits are derived from the war name of a settler who served in the army or militia: Tranchemontagne ("mountain slasher"), Jolicœur ("braveheart"). Others denote a personal trait: Lacourse might have been a fast runner, Legrand was probably tall, etc.
The Icelandic system, formerly used in much of Scandinavia, does not use family names. A person's last name indicates the first name of his or her father (patronymic) or in some cases mother (matronymic). Many common family names in other Scandinavian countries are a result of this naming practice, such as Hansen (son of Hans), Johansen (son of Johan) and Olsen (son of Ole/Ola), the three most common surnames in Norway.
Patronymic name conventions are similar in some other nations, including Malaysia (see Malaysian name) and other Muslim countries, among most people of the Indian states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala (unlike another Indian state Andhra Pradesh, where ancestral origin village names have become surnames for the people), in Mongolia and in the Scottish Gaelic personal naming system. In Russia and Bulgaria, both patronymic and family name are obligatory parts of one's full name: e.g. if a Russian is called Ivan Andreyevich Sergeyev, that means that his father's name is Andrey and his family name is Sergeyev. A similar system is used in Greece. In Ethiopia and Eritrea, a child adopts the given name of one of their parents, usually the father, as a pseudo-surname. For example, Abraham Mesfin's father's first name would have been Mesfin, while Abraham Mesfin's child might be called "Nestanet Abraham". Just as in Iceland, referring to Abraham Mesfin as "Mr Mesfin" would be erroneous: the correct term would be "Mr Abraham". Very rarely do children adopt their mother's given name, who in any case would retain their "pseudo-surname".
As part of Hebrew patronymic names, Ben is followed by the father's name, e.g. ben adam (Hebrew: בן אדם) or Abraham ben Abraham. Bar-, "son of" in Aramaic, is used likewise, e.g. Meir Bar-Ilan. Ben (Hebrew: בֶּן, son of) also forms part of Hebrew names, e.g. Benjamin.
In the United States, 1,712 surnames cover 50% of the population, and about 1% of the population has the surname Smith, which is also the most frequent English name and an occupational name ("metal worker"), a contraction, for instance, of blacksmith or ironsmith, among others. Several American surnames are a result of corruptions or phonetic misappropriations of European surnames, though often not, as commonly stated, as a result of the registration process at the immigration entry points. Spellings and pronunciations of names remained fluid in the United States until the Social Security System enforced standardization.
Approximately 70% of Canadians have surnames that are of English, Irish, French, or Scottish derivation.
According to some estimates, 85% of China's population shares just 100 surnames. The names Wang, Zhang and Li are the most frequent.
In Spain and in most Spanish-speaking countries, the custom is for people to have two surnames. Usually the first surname comes from the father and the second from the mother, but it could be the other way round. A child's first surname will usually be their father's first surname, while the child's second surname will usually be the mother's first surname. For example, if "(José) GARCÍA Torres" and "(María) ACOSTA Gómez" had a child named Paul, then his full name would be Paul García Acosta. One family member's relationship to another can often be identified by the various combinations and permutations of surnames.
In Spain, especially Catalonia, the paternal and maternal surnames are often combined using y (Spanish) or i (in Catalan), see for example the economist Xavier Sala-i-Martin or painter Salvador Dalí i Domènech.
In Spain, a woman does not change her legal surnames when she marries. In some Spanish-speaking countries in Latin America, a woman may, on her marriage, drop her mother's surname and add her husband's surname to her father's surname using the preposition "de" (of). For example, if "Clara Reyes Alba" were to marry "Alberto Gómez Rodríguez", the wife could use "Clara Reyes de Gómez" as her name (or "Clara Reyes Gómez", or, rarely, "Clara Gómez Reyes". She can be addressed as Sra. de Gómez corresponding to "Mrs Gómez"). In some countries, this form may be mainly social and not an official name change, i.e. her name would still legally be her birth name. This custom of adding the husband's surname is slowly fading.
Children take the surnames of both parents, so if the couple above had two children named "Andrés" and "Ana", then their names would be "Andrés Gómez Reyes" and "Ana Gómez Reyes". In Spain, a 1995 reform in the law allows the parents to choose whether the father's or the mother's surname goes first, although this order must be the same for all their children. For instance, the name of the son of the couple in the example above could be either "Andrés Gómez Reyes" or "Andrés Reyes Gómez". Sometimes, for single mothers or when the father would or could not recognize the child, the mother's surname has been used twice: for example, "Ana Reyes Reyes". In Spain, however, children with just one parent receive both surnames of that parent, although the order may also be changed. In 1973 in Chile, the law was changed to avoid stigmatizing illegitimate children with the maternal surname repeated.
It should be noted that some Hispanic people, after leaving their country, drop their maternal surname, even if not formally, so as to better fit into the non-Hispanic society they live or work in. Dropping the paternal surname is not unusual when it is a very common one. For instance, painter Pablo Ruiz Picasso and Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero are known by their maternal surnames as "Picasso" and "Zapatero". Similarly, Anglophones with just one surname may be asked to provide a second surname on official documents in Spanish-speaking countries. When none (such as the mother's maiden name) is provided, the last name may simply be repeated.
In some churches, such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, where the family structure is emphasized, as well as legal marriage, the wife is referred to as "hermana" [sister] plus the surname of her husband. And most records of the church follow that structure as well.
A new trend in the United States for Hispanics is to hyphenate their father's and mother's last names. This is done because American born English-speakers are not aware of the Hispanic custom of using two last names and thus mistake the first last name of the individual for a middle name. In doing so they would, for example, mistakenly refer to Esteban Álvarez Cobos as Esteban A. Cobos. Such confusion can be particularly troublesome in official matters. To avoid such mistakes, Esteban Álvarez Cobos, would become Esteban Álvarez-Cobos, to clarify that both are last names.
In Argentina, women traditionally used their husband's last name after "de". There are some province offices where a married woman can use only her birth name, and some others where she has to use the complete name, for legal purposes. The Argentine Civilian Code states both uses are correct, but police offices and passports are issued with the complete name. Today most women prefer to maintain their birth name given that "de" can be interpreted as meaning they belong to their husbands.
Combined names come from old traditional families and are considered one last name, but are rare. This is due to the fact that although Argentina is a Spanish speaking country, it is also composed of other varied European influences, such as Italian, French, Russian, German, etc.
Children typically use their fathers' last names only. Some state offices have started to use both last names, in the traditional father then mother order, to reduce the risk of a person being mistaken for others using the same name combinations, e.g. if Eva Duarte and Juan Perón had a child named Juan, he might be misidentified if he were called Juan Perón, but not if he was known as Juan Perón Duarte.
In early 2008, some new legislation is under consideration that will place the mother's last name ahead the father's last name, as it is done in Portuguese-speaking countries and only optionally in Spain, despite Argentina being a Spanish-speaking country.
In Chile, marriage has no effect at all on either of the spouses' names, so people keep their birth names for all their life, no matter how many times marital status, theirs or that of their parents, may change. However, in some circles, it is still customary for a wife to use her husband's name as reference, as in "Doña María Inés de Ramírez" (literally Lady María Inés (wife of) Ramírez).
Children will always bear the surname of the father followed by that of the mother, but if there is no known father and the mother is single, the children can bear either both of her mother's surnames or the mother's first surname followed by any of the surnames of the mother's parents or grandparents, or the child may bear the mother's first surname twice in a row.
In general, the traditions followed in countries like Brazil, Portugal and Angola are almost similar to the ones of Spain. The Spanish tradition, usually the father's surname comes first, followed by the mother's surname, whereas in Portuguese speaking countries the father's name is the last, mother's coming first. A woman may adopt her husband's surname(s), but nevertheless she usually keeps her birth names, or at least the last one. Since 1977, a husband can also adopt his wife's surname. When this happens, usually both spouses change their name after marriage.
The custom of a woman changing her name upon marriage is recent. It spread in the late 19th century in the upper classes, under French influence, and in the 20th century, particularly during the 1930s and 1940, it became socially almost obligatory. Nowadays, fewer women adopt, even officially, their husbands' names, and among those who do so officially, it is quite common not to use it either in their professional or informal life.
Until the end of the 19th century it was common for women, especially those from a very poor background, not to have a surname and so to be known only by her first name. She would then adopt her husband's full surname after marriage. With the advent of republicanism in Brazil and Portugal, along with the institution of civil registries, all children now have surnames.
For the children, some bear only the last surnames of the parents. For example, Carlos da Silva Gonçalves and Ana Luísa de Albuquerque Pereira (Gonçalves) (in case she adopted her husband's name after marriage) would have a child named Lucas Pereira Gonçalves. However, the child may have any other combination of the parents' surnames, according to euphony, social significance or other reasons.
In India, surnames are placed as last names or before first names, which often denote: village of origin, caste, clan, office of authority their ancestors held, or trades of their ancestors.
The largest variety of surnames is found in the state of Maharashtra, which numbers more than the rest of India together. In Maharashtra surnames are placed last, the order being: the given name, followed by the father's name, followed by the family name. The majority of surnames are derived from the village where the family lived, with the 'kar' suffix, for example, Mumbaikar, Punekar, Aurangabadkar.
In Andhra Pradesh, surnames usually denotes family names. It is easy to track family history, caste they belong to, using surname.
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