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Difference between Given Name and Surname

Difference between Given Name and Surname

Given name and surname are the main identification attributes for a person. Depending on the country of origin and on the traditions of a specific culture, given names and surnames can have different relevance and connotation. However, regardless of tradition and culture, the main difference between the two is that the first name of a person can be any name, whereas the surname is shared with other members of the family. In fact, in most countries, children inherit the surname of their father.

According to the dictionary, “a given name is a person’s first name, which they are given at birth in addition to their surname.” Whereas the surname is “the name borne in common by members of a family.” The surname is a hereditary name, which is common to all (or most) members of the family.

For instance, in the name “Luke Brown”, “Luke” is the given name – also referred to as first name or forename – whereas “Brown” is the surname or family name.


The number of existing given names and surnames is endless. For instance, according to a research conducted by BBC UK, in England alone there are around 45,000 different surnames. While today surnames are mainly passed on from father to son/daughter, in the past, names and surnames derived from countless sources. Possible origins for names (given names and surnames) were:

  • Physical features;
  • Heraldic charges;
  • Occupation;
  • Nicknames;
  • Baptismal names; and
  • Locality.

Before the Middle Age, surnames did not exist and people knew each other and referred to other persons only by their given names. However, as societies grew larger and community began to be more interlinked, the idea of surnames came into existence and spread quickly all over the world – or at least, among Western societies.

In general, surnames can be:

  • Patronymic: the child inherits the surname from the father; or
  • Metronymic: the child inherits the surname from the mother.

Today, children often inherit the surname of the father as in many societies the wife acquires the surname of the husband after the marriage. However, with the growing emancipation of women, using the mother’s surname or both (mother’s and father’s last names) is becoming more common. The tradition of the “double surname” is widespread in Spanish-speaking countries where names such as “Juan Torres-Sanchez” are very common – with “Torres” often being the surname of the father and “Sanchez” the last name of the mother.

While the surname is inherited from one of the two parents (or both) and creates an unbreakable bond between the child and his/her family, the given name can be – quite literally – any name. The choice of a child’s name is entirely up to the parents’ taste and preferences. Parents can choose:

  • Traditional names;
  • New and extravagant names;
  • Names that remind them of famous persons (singers, politicians, sportsmen etc.); or
  • Names that are often used within the family (great-grandfather’s names, etc.)

In general, parents tend to pick names that belong to the national tradition (i.e. it is quite uncommon for an American citizen to be called Xi – a typical Chinese name – unless his/her parents are of Chinese origins). Yet, when parents want to be original and give their child a unique name, they can either invent a brand new name or choose a “foreign” name. For instance, in Italy, many newborns are often given the English version of traditional Italian names – “Michele” becomes “Michael” and “Giovanni” becomes “John”.

Back to the origins

While the given name does not provide any information about the family – besides about the taste of the parents, the surname contains precious information about the family’s origins, including location, occupation of the ancestors, social class etc.

For instance, in English-speaking countries – as in many other countries – surnames were often derived from a person’s occupation. In the United Kingdom – and in all former British colonies – surnames ending in –er or –man usually imply a job or a trade (i.e. Turner, Fiddler, Painter, Piper, Player, Brewer, Piper, Baker, Potman etc.). Not all references to jobs and occupation are as obvious:

  • Jenner (engineer);
  • Dauber (plasterer):
  • Bannister (bath keeper); or
  • Leech (physician).

Furthermore, surnames often derived from specific fields. The military field gave us surnames as Knight, Smith, Pike or Bowman, whereas surnames such as Pope, Abbot, Monk or Bishop clearly derive from the church.

Surnames can also provide precious information on the origins and locations of the ancestors. In fact, last names can be derived from several sources: country, city, village, town, estate – and even from features of the area and of the landscape (hill, river, wood, etc.). Surnames derived from country names are:

  • Moore (from Morocco) – this surname can also be transformed in, inter alia, Moris, Moorish, Morys, and Morris;
  • French (from France);
  • Britten (from Britain); or
  • Beamish (meaning Bohemian).

Features of the landscape gave us several surnames, including:

  • Hill (or Hills, Hull, Thill, etc.);
  • Wood (or Woods, Woodman, Greenwood etc.);
  • Burn (a stream);
  • Leaf;
  • Root;
  • Maple;
  • Oak (or Oakley, Ockham or Noakes); and
  • Borough (or Bury, Burrows, Burke or Bourke).

Furthermore, we can also identify surnames typical of specific regions. For instance, in Italy, last names ending in –in are typical of the Northeastern part of the country whereas surnames ending in –u are very common in Sardinia.

Finally, surnames can also be derived from baptismal names. In other words, sons and daughters often acquired their surnames by adding –son or –daughter to their father’s given names. For instance, the son of Rob acquired the surname Robson while the son of William acquired the surname Williamson (or Williams, Williamsor, etc.). In Nordic countries (Iceland, Norway, Sweden etc.) daughters acquire their father’s name with the addition of the suffix –dottir (daughter). For example, the last name “Sigmundottir” means “daughter of Sigmund”.

First names

While surnames are part of the family’s identity, given names define the individual’s identity. In fact, one of the main sources for first names is the Bible, and names such as David, John, Joseph, Eve, Rebecca, Sarah or Ruth have religious meanings. For instance, John – a male name of Israeli origin – means “god is gracious, merciful” and the biblical name “Rebecca” means “servant of God”.

Choosing the name of a newborn is very important moment and the so-called “naming ceremonies” vary from country to country and from tradition to tradition.

  • Hinduism: naming the baby is a sacred moment in India and the naming ceremony – the naamkaran – involves family and relatives;
  • Christianity: the name of the child is often decided during the baptism;
  • Islam: traditionally, babies are named on the seventh day and the naming ceremony is called Aqiqah; and
  • Judaism: baby boys are named on the eighth day, while girls are named within the first two weeks.


Given names and surnames help us identify a person. Depending on one’s country of origin, his/her given name and surname can have different meanings and different origins. The given name can be any name; it is chosen by the parents (or by the child’s legal guardian) and is the main identification attribute for a person. In the past, people only used first names; however, as society and communities grew larger, the need for a clearer system of identification became stronger. Since early Middle Age – and even earlier in some parts of the world – surnames came into existence. The sources for last names are many and the most common are:

  • Occupation: jobs and trade gave us surnames such as, inter alia, Potter, Baker, Player, Brewer, Pope, Knight and King;
  • Location: countries and towns gave us surnames such as, inter alia, French, Britten, Moore, Bretton and Beamish;
  • Landscape’s features: the features of the landscape gave us surnames such as, inter alia, Hill, Woods, Leaf, Root, Oak and Maple; and
  • Baptismal names: many children are named after their father’s first name. For instance, the surname “Robson” literally means “son of Rob” and Williamson means “son of William.

Surnames inevitably link the child to the family and are the core of the identity of the family. In fact, today, many decide to dig into the origins of their last names to discover information on their ancestors and on their past. Moreover, surnames are often used in official titles – Mr. “Last Name” or Ms. “Last Name,” and, after the marriage, women can decide to acquire their husband’s last name and to drop their so-called “maiden names.”

Conversely, given names do not provide us with any information on the family nor on the occupation/location of our ancestors. Yet, they are not less important. In fact, all over the world there are different naming ceremonies during which babies are given their names. In the Hindu tradition, the naming ceremony is called “naamkaran,” in the Islamic culture such ceremony is named “Aqiqah,” while in the Christian world babies are given their names during the baptism.

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  1. Hello there, You have done a great job. I will certainly digg it and in my view recommend to my friends.
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  2. The picture at the beginning of the article is great, however why is ‘surname’ missing from the last name column? The article is all about ‘given name’ vs ‘surname.’ Seems like it should be there for easy clarification.

  3. Is there a word for given names as surnames eg Elton John, Geoff George or Michael Charles

  4. Rupesh ashok mandlik

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References :

[0]Given name – Definition, Merriam-Webster Dictionary, available at https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/given%20name

[1]Naming traditions and ceremonies from around the world, Confetti, available at https://www.confetti.co.uk/occasions/naming-traditions-and-ceremonies-from-around-the-world

[2]Surname – Definition, Merriam-Webster Dictionary, available at https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/surname

[3]What's In a Name? Your Link to the Past, Paul Blake, BBC UK, available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/familyhistory/get_started/surnames_01.shtml

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