Household Names: what surnames tell us about family

Surnames connect us to people with our same names millennia before us and they set us apart as modern, global, and freed.

I do not know my paternal great-great-grandfather’s surname. You’d imagine that I would — my own surname was inherited patrilineally — but after arriving in Australia from then-Yugoslavia, my great grandfather anglicised his surname, truncating it and changing its spelling to one that better resembled English phonetics. Just as we can trace our family histories through genetics, our surnames paint vivid pictures of our ancestry, tying us to our pasts while tracking the cultural and social changes our forebears endured. Surnames are a linguistic history of family. 

Cultural practices relating to surnames vary greatly across different cultures. Some of the first records of surnames come from ancient China — family names were decreed as a necessity to improve censuses four thousand years ago. In the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE), these hereditary names were listed in the book Baijiaxing (百家姓), meaning “Hundred Family Surnames”. Around a quarter of the names listed in this text are still in use, and more still have endured in simplified or anglicised forms. The text is still used as an educational tool; many people have learnt to read and write by practicing the characters in this book. There is something quite beautiful, I think, about learning to write using the names of your ancestors. Surnames are a deep seated tradition of culture and connection. 

The names we mark families by come from a range of sources. Unlike today, where it’s easy to imagine surnames as arbitrary additional names, when surnames first became necessary they were tools of distinction, using traits of a person and their family to discern between those with the same name. Surnames could be locative — relating to a place of origin. This could relate to a kingdom or area you came from, such as the Chinese surname Wu (吳) from the ancient state of Wu. It could also be derived from a description of your home; many British surnames end in a suffix that does just that, such as  -wood, -field, -brook, and -well. 

Surnames can also be occupational, deriving from the social role that one plays in the community. Many English examples come to mind which are still professions today: Baker, Smith, Cook. Others are less obvious — I did a double take when I saw “Coward” listed as an occupational surname on Wikipedia, but it stems from “cow herd”. Non-English examples include Cohen (a Hebrew name relating to priests), Meyer (from the German “mei(g)er”, meaning manager of an estate), and Trump (a German name possibly coming from “drum”). 

Patrilineage plays a large role in surnames across cultures. Although ancient Chinese surnames were matrilineal — passed down from your mother — the majority of surnames are inherited from one’s father. This interacts directly with the convention of women taking on a husband’s name after marriage; even before a child is born, many cultures designate that the man’s name is the “family” name. Surnames are not only often inherited through one’s father, but can etymologically stem from fathers too. In many Arabic-speaking cultures, for example, it is common to trace patrilineage through nasab, a series of names following your first name — ism — that list your paternal ancestors, often preceded by “bin” or “ibn” (son of) or ”ibnat” or “bint” (daughter of). If your name is Muhammad, your father is Saeed, and your grandfather is Ghassan, you may be referred to as Muhammad bin Saeed bin Ghassan. Although nasab functions differently to surnames, many Arab immigrants to non-Arab countries, which necessitate surnames on legal paperwork, use the name of a paternal ancestor for this function. Patrilineage is also evident in Anglo surnames as well — affixes like “O’”, “-son”, or “Mac-” all serve to indicate the relationship between a child and their father (“Johnson”, for example, means “son of John”). Through these conventions, we can understand the power dynamics baked into our culture and the omnipresence of patriarchy. 

Just as surnames are an integral and longstanding part of many societies, they are absent from many cultures too. As with nasab, many cultures refer to children purely by their parents, such as in Ethiopia and Iceland. These names are not passed down generationally. If surnames become mainstream in a culture they were previously absent, we can learn about history from that too. Surnames were reserved for the elite in Korea until five hundred years ago, when commoners gradually began to choose and use family names. Many chose names that had longstanding ties with nobility, like Kim, Lee, and Park, even if they themselves had no such ties. During Japanese colonisation, this practice was further embedded, as Korean families were forced to take surnames. As such, those surnames now cover over 40% of the South Korean population. 

Chosen surnames can be just as meaningful as those inherited from generations. Many enslaved people chose their own surnames upon being freed, rejecting the names given to them by white slaveholders. Notably, Malcolm X changed his surname from “Little” — the name given by slaveholders to his family — to the letter X, representing the unknown names of his African ancestors. Choosing one’s surname can be deeply meaningful, and allows for a legal and symbolic reclamation of autonomy.

There are other reasons that surnames change over time too. Just like my great-grandfather, many immigrants to Western countries anglicise their names to better assimilate to dominant Anglo culture. This can involve changing orthography, or the way a name is spelt, to better fit within Roman characters and English consonants; the “y” in my surname was likely once a “j”. It can also involve cutting up and changing the way a name is pronounced to sit better on Anglo tongues, like changing the Irish name “Ó Cearmada” to “Carmody”. This practice of anglicising migrant names was so common that it became known as the “Ellis Island Special” in the 19th and early 20th centuries during mass immigration to the United States. These changes are a rather unsubtle synecdoche of how immigrants are forced to assimilate to cultures that are unaccustomed to them; Ellis Island’s freshly-inked papers spell out the pressures of Western hegemony in Anglo letters. 

Surnames are inextricable from how we understand family and genealogy. They connect us to people with our same names millennia before us and they set us apart as modern, global, and freed. We ought to speak our names with pride.