Difference Between Surname and Given Name

The main instrument to identify a person is their name. In many cultures, given name and surname are the fundamental ingredients that made up a person’s name. While given names and surnames may have different connotations and significance depending on the locations and culture, there are certain aspects that will always differentiate between the two wherever you go. Given name, a.k.a first name may be any name that is given by the parents. On the other hand, surname, a.k.a family name, is a name shared with other family members, including some relatives.

Dictionary.com defines given name as, “the name given to one, as distinguished from an inherited family name.” Conversely, the site characterizes surname as, “the name that a person has in common with other family members, as distinguished from a given name.

For example, Orville Wright and Wilbur Wright are two blood siblings that invented the first-ever airplane. Both of them have the same surname, which is Wright. Whereas their given name—Orville and Wilbur—are undoubtedly different.

Origin

Surname

Today’s surnames mostly come from fathers’ surnames that are passed on to their son/daughter. While the father’s wife, or the child’s mother, usually has a different surname, she can choose to drop her original surname—often described as “maiden name”—and change it to her husband’s surname or family name.

The surnames themselves, however, are originally derived from countless roots, including but not limited to:

  • Occupation
  • Physical appearance
  • Social class
  • Local environment, and
  • Baptismal names

For instance, you may have known people—or maybe yourself—that have Piper, Player, Baker, Turner, or Brewer as their surname. Those surnames are references to the occupations of their ancestors. Other surnames like King, Knight, and Bowman refers to their social class or the military rank.

Hill, Wood, Maple, and Borough are surnames that feature the landscape the originator lived in. Whereas names like Robertson (son of Robert) or Carlsdotter (daughter of Carl) often called baptismal names. The term came from when a father combines his own given names with a suffix like –son or –daughter as a surname to his child at the church.

In the west, surnames didn’t exist until the Middle Age—can be earlier or later in other parts of the world—as people could still identify one another using only their given names. Eventually, as the population grew larger and the communities of people became more interconnected, the need for a more practical way to differentiate people according to their names was becoming more apparent. Thus, the concept of surname or family name was born.

While children usually inherit the surname of the father in the past, nowadays, the practice of the mother’s surname inheritance is also growing, following the women’s emancipation movement. These cases can be found with the “double surname” tradition. For example, an English football player, Trent Alexander-Arnold, has the surnames of both his father (Arnold) and his mother (Alexander) joined. This tradition is more prevalent in Spain-speaking countries.

Given name

In contrast with surname, given name doesn’t have a strict rule so parents can name their child literally however they want. In many cases though, Christian families often use the Bible as the main source for given names. Names like David, Michael, Noah, and Gabriel indicate entities that appear in the Holy Book. In addition, Mohamed, Zain, and Hassan are names that have a connection to Islam.

There are also other ways people can name their children. Some parents decide to name their child after famous public figures. In another case, while most people traditionally name their child, some parents may go with originality and choose or invent an extraordinary name for their child.

Christian name, middle name, and more

There are quite a handful of other terms regarding names that might confuse people. One such term is “Christian name” which is technically the first name or given name. Christian name, however, is a more specific term that refers to the first name given at the baptism ceremony. “Forename” is also another approach of saying the given name.

The middle name, on the other hand, is its own phrase pointing to a portion of one’s personal name. In some cultures, usually placed between the given name and surname, the middle name may be given to a person regardless of whether it’s necessary to further distinguish them from the others.

Summary

Surnames didn’t appear until the Middle Age. The origin of surnames come from one’s ancestor’s either occupation, local environment, or many other sources. Contrarily, a Given name already exists way earlier in the past and is chosen by the parents.

In many countries, people’s name consist of surnames and given names, and both may serve as a person’s primary identifier.


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SOURCES: U.S. SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION + USER SUBMISSIONS
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This site combines data and design in an artistic way to make it fun and interesting to learn about names. You can begin by using the search box to type in a first and last name. Available name combinations will be suggested below the search box - please select one of the suggestions and you will be taken to a page that displays data about that name. Some examples include John Doe and Mary Jane. As noted clearly at the top and bottom of these types of pages on the website, "THIS SITE IS PROVIDED FOR FUN AND SHOULD NOT BE INTERPRETED AS PERSONAL INFORMATION ABOUT AN INDIVIDUAL." Occasionally, however, if the community has provided or requested information about a celebrity/public figure, we may also provide "bio" pages that offer in-depth information about the individual. Some examples include John Lennon, Yoko Ono, and Aretha Franklin. We hope that you enjoy using our website and find it fun and interesting!
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