surnames

surnames
In Britain and the US surnames, also called last names or family names, pass from fathers to their children. Traditionally, women change their surname when they marry, replacing their maiden name, the surname they had from birth, with the surname of their husband. In the US especially, some women keep their maiden name as a middle name. Others choose to keep their maiden name as their surname after they are married. A few create a double-barrelled name (AmE hyphenated name) from the two surnames, such as Johnson-Brown. In a few cases the husband and children may also take this name. In Britain a double-barrelled surname used to suggest an upper-class background, but this is no longer always so.
  In the US, laws about changing a last name, whether after marriage or for some other reason, vary from state to state, but it is usually a simple process and in some states people can just begin to use a new name if they want to. In Britain a woman can change her surname automatically after marriage. If people wish to change their name for any other reason they can do so by deed poll, a simple legal procedure.
  In fact people rarely change their surname except after marriage, and many people are able to research their family history over many centuries. Most families were known by surnames by 1300 and many of the old names are still common. Sometimes the names reflected the place where the family lived, such as the name of their village or a reference to a feature of the local countryside, e.g. Ford, Hill or Wood. Other surnames refer to the original occupation or trade of the family, e.g. Baker, Miller, Shepherd and Smith. Sometimes the surname began as a nickname. For instance, someone with dark hair or a dark skin might be called Black, Blake or Brown. Some surnames were taken from personal names, as in Andrews, Martin and Roberts. Others were based on French names that came to Britain during the Norman Conquest, e.g. Sinclair from the French ‘Saint-Clair’.
  Many surnames occur throughout Britain, but others suggest a particular regional origin. Many Scottish names begin with Mc- or Mac-, meaning ‘son of’, e.g. McDonald and MacGregor. Members of a clan added this prefix to their father’s name. Irish surnames often begin with O’, meaning ‘descended from’, e.g. O’Brien. Many Irish surnames are derived from ancient Celtic names. Common Welsh surnames include Evans, Morgan, Price, Rees and Williams. The most common surname in England and Scotland is Smith, closely followed by Jones, a name also widely found in Wales. Other surnames were brought to Britain by families from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and China. These include Ahmed, Hussain, Khan, Patel, Singh and Tsang.
  All the surnames found in Britain are also found in the US, together with many others from all over the world. Some people wanted to sound more American when they arrived in the US and so took English last names. Sometimes government officials could not understand the names of new arrivals and wrote similar English names on their documents. Many Americans of German origin changed their names during the two world wars. African Americans whose ancestors were slaves do not know what last names their families originally had. Most have English or Irish names, because slaves had to take the names of their owners.
  When British and US people introduce themselves they give their first name and then their surname, e.g. Michael Johnson, Linda Johnson. The opposite order ‘Johnson, Michael’ is used only in alphabetical lists. When people are addressed formally a title is put before their last name, usually Mr for men and Mrs, Miss or Ms for women. Married women used always to be called Mrs Johnson, etc. In formal situations they used to be referred to as e.g. Mrs Michael Johnson, using their husband’s first name rather than their own, but this is now much less common. Unmarried women were known as Miss Johnson, etc. Many women now prefer the title Ms because, like Mr, it does not give any information about whether the person is married. Other titles include Dr for medical doctors and people with a doctorate and General, Colonel, etc. for people holding military ranks. Men especially may be referred to simply by their last name, e.g. the previous Democratic president was Carter, but addressing somebody in this way may cause offence.

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Universalium. 2010.

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