When did we stop inventing new surnames?
August 20, 2009 11:19 PM   Subscribe

When did we stop inventing new surnames?

Speaking mainly about Western languages, I am broadly familiar with the history of surnames, and the way in which some reflected occupation, others family relationships ("son of") etc. I am also aware that some names were quite recently "created" as people migrated to different countries and names were anglicised or otherwise edited by immigration authorities. But is there a point at which the current surnames being passed down through the generations more or less settled where they are now? When did we stop creating new ones?
posted by szechuan to Writing & Language (41 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
 
We have stopped creating new ones? What about the hyphenated ones? What about those who drop part of their names for simplicity? I disagree with the premise that we stopped creating new ones.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 11:28 PM on August 20, 2009 [5 favorites]


I don't think we really have entirely stopped creating new ones, and I doubt we ever will, unless surnames start seriously falling out of fashion. Plenty of people, especially those in non-traditional relationships, have taken to creating new surnames to reflect their new union.
posted by Diagonalize at 11:29 PM on August 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


Well, I know two unrelated people who both have completely-invented surnames, so I don't think this has really 'stopped' yet, either. And if everyone on MetaFilter knows someone with a made-up name (as I suspect this thread is about to tell you), what will that mean? 20,000 new surnames in our generation alone?

I imagine anyone, at any point in history, could have asked the same question as yours, because most of the names they could cite were old at the time, also.

It never feels like history when you're in the middle of it.
posted by rokusan at 11:31 PM on August 20, 2009 [3 favorites]


The answer is that we haven't stopped and we never will. Some people will continue to anglicise their names. Others will truncate or hyphenate. A few will create a name that is a hybrid of their own and their partner's names. Some people will invent their own names as soon as they are legally able.
posted by crossoverman at 11:35 PM on August 20, 2009


By and large they will have become fixed as written record-keeping spread and became standardised - registrations of baptisms, deaths and so on in parishes - certainly I believe this was the case in England and France. Beginning mid-16th century for the former IIRC, and Google tells me earlier in France but becoming widespread at around the same time as England.
posted by Abiezer at 11:38 PM on August 20, 2009 [3 favorites]


When I took U.S. citizenship like, 15 years ago or so, I asked for a certain spelling of my last name (it can be phonetically spelled in two ways, since it's a Japanese name). The official lady said blithely, "Oh honey, you can choose any name you want as your formal name". So that leads me to surmise that new surnames are ever going to stop being invented, especially for immigrants to the U.S. (I wish I'd been able to think of some totally awesome new name at that point...)
posted by thread_makimaki at 11:43 PM on August 20, 2009 [2 favorites]


Jello BIAFRA
Joey SHITHEAD
Johnny ROTTEN

Philip RANDOM
(keeping a respectful distance from such terra-stompers)
posted by philip-random at 11:44 PM on August 20, 2009


You might want to take a look at this recent article about Galileo on Slate. Quoting liberally (emphasis mine):
In Renaissance Italy, individuals didn't even stick with the same second, or identifying, name throughout their lives. Many used their family surnames one day and place of birth the next, depending on the circumstances. Take Leonardo da Vinci. Because Vinci was a very small town, calling himself Leonardo from the town of Vinci left little room for confusion--unless, of course, he was in Vinci at the time. (Leonardo was a common name.) In that case, the artist would probably have called himself Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci, making reference to his father.

[...]

The governments of the various Italian city-states eventually grew frustrated by their citizens' constantly shifting last names--without standardization, it was difficult to levy taxes or enforce military registration requirements. Beginning in Galileo's lifetime, therefore, laws swept through Italy requiring parents to record both first and last names for their children. If a family had a traditional surname, they usually used that. If not, they resorted to town of origin or occupation, and then these names were passed down through the generations. For the first time, a person named da Vinci might not actually be from Vinci. A man named Ferrari might not be a blacksmith.

[...]

Italy was a bit of a latecomer in this regard. Many nearby countries, like France and Germany, had systematized surnames generations earlier.
posted by mhum at 11:48 PM on August 20, 2009 [6 favorites]


In the tradition of names describing their bearers' occupations, I almost changed my last name to Codewright. I was so fucking close; and it was gonna be so fucking cool.

However, then my wife (then fiancée) decided she wanted to take my last name. And she didn't think it made any sense for a nurse to be named Codewright. Nor did she want to take my last name while I migrated off to a new one. If not for this wrinkle, I would absolutely have contributed a new surname to the memepool.
posted by Netzapper at 11:49 PM on August 20, 2009 [3 favorites]


When did we stop creating new ones?

Speak for yourself. Swedes seek new surnames in record numbers.
posted by effbot at 12:16 AM on August 21, 2009 [1 favorite]



By and large they will have become fixed as written record-keeping spread and became standardised

The Dutch were forced to take surnames in 1811, but many people thought it would be a temporary measure, which led to some interesting name choices.
posted by effbot at 12:32 AM on August 21, 2009 [20 favorites]


The likes of Johnny ROTTEN are not new surnames but pseudonyms. Johnny Rotten remains John Lydon. He doesn't have children but, if he did, they would be called Lydon, not Rotten (unless they changed their name). Following on from effbot's link above, my daughter who lives in Sweden, has several friends who have changed their surnames and is thinking of doing so herself.
posted by TheRaven at 12:37 AM on August 21, 2009


I think the spirit of the original question has more to do with completely new surnames created out of thin air, rather than the anglicizing, contraction, extension, or modification of pre-existing ones.

I think it'd be more applicable in countries where immigration isn't quite as prevalent, meaning a smaller part of the population would have surnames that were changed within recent generations.

And I personally have never heard of married couples coming up with a new or combined name (outside of hyphenization), be it someone I knew in person or otherwise.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 12:54 AM on August 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


You know who else had a new surname? That's right Hitler. His dad had changed his last name, so there were only a small group of people with that last name when he came to power.
posted by delmoi at 1:08 AM on August 21, 2009 [3 favorites]


And I personally have never heard of married couples coming up with a new or combined name...

Oh, yes. I know two of those couples too, though in one case I did not know for many years because they were already married when I met them, and didn't realize they each had different names before.

It's an increasingly popular convention, I think, a clever out-of-box solution to the "who takes whose name?" and other such sexist oddnesses.

New surnames are being "invented" every single day. It did not stop.
posted by rokusan at 1:22 AM on August 21, 2009


I think the spirit of the original question has more to do with completely new surnames created out of thin air, rather than the anglicizing, contraction, extension, or modification of pre-existing ones.

Judging from the comments marked as "best answers", the spirit of the original post was to get support for the "we stopped creating new surnames hundreds of years ago" hypothesis by ignoring everyone who points out that the hypothesis has no grounding in reality.

And I personally have never heard of married couples coming up with a new or combined name (outside of hyphenization), be it someone I knew in person or otherwise.

I suggest reading the article I linked to before. It explicitly mentions both marriages and non-immigrant name changes as common cases.
posted by effbot at 1:39 AM on August 21, 2009 [4 favorites]


the hypothesis has no grounding in reality
Only in so far as you've misrepresented it.
You'll note I began my answer with "by and large" - no-one's claiming the introduction of state records was the absolute end of any and all new surnames, but in many or most European nations it fixed them for most people. The question read as if the asker was mostly interested in the broad historical phenomenon, and presumably that's why they've marked the answers that address this as best.
posted by Abiezer at 1:46 AM on August 21, 2009 [3 favorites]


The OP repeats "When did we stop creating new surnames?" three times in the post. In the real world, we haven't.
posted by effbot at 1:50 AM on August 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


All a bit MeTa this, but I took myself to be addressing this: "But is there a point at which the current surnames being passed down through the generations more or less settled where they are now?" No doubt later anomalies are also of interest, or nations where this is not the case (I could bore at some length about the situation in China), but frankly the answers marked would indicate that the asker was after the broader story, so not sure what your problem is.
posted by Abiezer at 1:56 AM on August 21, 2009


It might be interesting to wonder not 'when was the last time a new name came into existence' but rather 'when was/will (if ever) the creation of new names (be) outnumbered by the removal of certain names from the name pool', thus leading to a net reduction in the number of names out there. I'm the last in line of my family name, and when I die, that particular surname strand will come to an end. Reading old newspapers, or literature, one gets a strong sense that certain surnames seem incredibly old-fashioned, and it's likely the case that these families, at some point, stopped reproducing, or changed their names to that of their spouses, and the names died out. It's a name birthrate/deathrate equivalent. So - anyone have any info on this? Is the name pool contracting? Or is it still expanding?
posted by Beautiful Screaming Lady at 2:15 AM on August 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


I think the problem lies in the false premise.

Things that have by and large stopped havent stopped.
posted by the cuban at 2:15 AM on August 21, 2009


Come off it - there's a reasonably identifiable point in history for various Western nations where the bulk of the non-gentry population (they had them already) acquired fixed surnames for the first time and ninety-nine percent of 'em (I exaggerate) and their descendants stuck with these.
posted by Abiezer at 2:30 AM on August 21, 2009 [7 favorites]


Well, I'm pretty sure my comment was made in the context of TheSecretDecoderRing's various assertions (most of which was in direct conflict with the article I linked to earlier), so I'm not sure I see the point of someone jumping into that discussion to ask what "my problem" is, and then going all "rah rah rah I'm the only one who understood the original question".
posted by effbot at 2:45 AM on August 21, 2009


Surprising the ones that stir up a controversy - I was exercised by you saying that the marked answers supported a "hypothesis [with] no grounding in reality." I disagree, and as you can see, will happily argue my case; though no more, as I'm sure we've had enough of it.
posted by Abiezer at 2:56 AM on August 21, 2009


And I personally have never heard of married couples coming up with a new or combined name...

I know two couples who went down that route.
posted by rodgerd at 4:26 AM on August 21, 2009


And I personally have never heard of married couples coming up with a new or combined name...

Dan McKanan was a Buchanan who married a McKenna. He and his wife combined their names when they married.
posted by katemonster at 6:07 AM on August 21, 2009


Judging from the comments marked as "best answers", the spirit of the original post was to get support for the "we stopped creating new surnames hundreds of years ago" hypothesis by ignoring everyone who points out that the hypothesis has no grounding in reality.

If I were to take the enormous, unrequested liberty of rephrasing the OP's question in order to satisfy the crazy pedants on this thread, I would do it like this:

"Obviously, new surnames are created all the time, for various reasons. But the vast majority of people we all know have a surname that has been handed down through generations. Often it relates to an occupation, a family relationship or a place of residence which haven't actually described the people in question for many generations. Was there a point or a phase in history at which these things become static (eg., the son of a farmer who became a baker would be called Farmer, not Baker), and if so what brought it about?"

Jeez.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 6:15 AM on August 21, 2009 [24 favorites]


A co-worker of mine changed his last name (as did his wife) to that of the Saskatchewan town they were driving through when they decided to tie the knot.

Two common reactions to this (usually one after the other) of my friends:
1) Awww, that's the most romantic thing I've ever heard.
2) Grrr, that's the most romantic thing I've heard. Thanks for setting the bar so high, doofus..
posted by Hardcore Poser at 7:05 AM on August 21, 2009 [3 favorites]


And I personally have never heard of married couples coming up with a new or combined name (outside of hyphenization), be it someone I knew in person or otherwise.
The mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa, was born Antonio Villar created his last name by combining it with the name of his wife, Corina Raigosa.

The general pattern seems to be that royal or otherwise economically prominent families have had surnames since antiquity. Usually around the Renaissance era or so, governments wanted everyone to adopt identifying surnames for recordkeeping and taxation purposes when the scale of taxation regimes became large and had to deal with larger numbers of migrating workers. Under feudalism taxation was handled by the local lord and his population remained relatively small and static where occupational and patronymic identifiers would be enough to differentiate subjects for record-keeping purposes.

By way of contrast, look at Iceland: they've always been small enough that they never got to the point where the adoption of surnames seemed necessary, so they use patronyms.
posted by deanc at 7:12 AM on August 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


The answer I got in my Western Civ class was, for most of Western Europe, "when a national government started collecting taxes"
posted by dagnyscott at 7:19 AM on August 21, 2009 [4 favorites]


As an interesting side-note, New York State law has a peculiar wrinkle in it. Specifically, the law states that you can name yourself anything you want to. But, if you change your birth name, you have to file that name change with the state - usually through your county or city clerk, which costs a fee.

However, you get a completely free name change when you pay for a marriage license. When the marriage is consummated, whatever the names are as written on the license become the legal names of record, for both spouses. And, it's even explicitly stated on the license form that the wife is not required to take the husband's last name. The name change can be anything! And, there are people who have taken advantage of this, changing both names to a third name that neither had before.


Oh, and Netzapper - LOVE the name "Codewright". It's a shame you couldn't do it.
posted by Citrus at 7:53 AM on August 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


I understand your intention, but you've asked two different questions here. You've gotten plenty of answers to your second question, which, in retrospect, I should have realized you'd get deluged by, but in answer to your first question: surnames go through various standardization processes that vary from country to country, and they generally remain somewhat fluid, even after that standardization process.

For example, I'm of Japanese descent, and the surnames in my family don't go back for many generations at all. It wasn't until after the Meiji Restoration in the late 1800s that the government required the common people to take surnames, presumably for record keeping and taxation purposes, as dagnyscott mentioned. Shortly after that, my great-grandparents immigrated to Hawaii, where their name went through a Westernization process and became something that approximated their recently acquired Japanese surname. I don't even know for sure if the name they received is the same as the one they were using before they immigrated.

There are some names, (usually associated with prominent families, but not royalty itself--the imperial family notably does not have a surname), that have survived since antiquity. Historically, names were directly related to status, so, for example, a famous court poet could have multiple names, used under different circumstances. Probably because of this, there are certain "professional names" people still adopt for things like kabuki and sumo. Today, it is very common for public figures to become known by a nickname, often a combination of their given name and surname, which doesn't necessarily affect their official name, but it definitely shapes their image.

Since the Meiji Restoration, Japanese naming conventions have actually become fairly rigid; every individual is legally required to have two (and only two) names, a given name and a family name, each containing only certain approved characters. You can have a name written exclusively in katakana or hiragana, if you wish, but your choices of kanji are limited. This is almost certainly to streamline record-keeping, as it becomes very complicated with the many obscure and varied readings certain kanji characters can have. Family names are generally preserved from generation to generation, but it is not considered uncommon for a man to take his wife's surname. And even with all the stringent official naming conventions, people still make up their own surnames, so there you go.

Damn, that was long.
posted by Diagonalize at 8:18 AM on August 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


As other people have pointed out, there are really two questions here: (1) when did people acquire fixed surnames which they could pass on to their children? (answer: sometime in the Middle Ages), and (2) when did people stop creating new surnames? (answer: they haven't). I'll concentrate on the first question.

The answers by Abiezer ('beginning mid-16th century') and deanc ('usually around the Renaissance era or so') are not quite accurate. In England, and in other parts of Western Europe, the pattern of fixed hereditary surnames was established much earlier:

The process by which surnames became fixed was prolonged and complicated. The fashion spread in southern England and East Anglia during the second half of the 13th century and the first half of the 14th, but although equally early examples can be found in northern England and Lowland Scotland it took another century to become widespread there. By the 15th century most English people had acquired fixed, hereditary surnames, but Welsh names did not take an English form until the 16th century, and often long afterwards. (David Hey, Oxford Companion to Family and Local History (2nd ed., 2008), p. 9.)

No one is quite sure why this happened, but there are several plausible explanations. (1) The Norman barons introduced the custom soon after the Norman Conquest, and it gradually spread down the social scale. (2) The number of commonly-used Christian names was declining, so surnames were needed in order to tell people apart. (3) The growing use of written records, particularly in the 13th and 14th centuries, made it necessary for people to be clearly identified in writing if they wanted to hand on their property to their children.
posted by verstegan at 8:37 AM on August 21, 2009 [3 favorites]


And I personally have never heard of married couples coming up with a new or combined name (outside of hyphenization), be it someone I knew in person or otherwise.

I know four such couples, so I'm covering you here.

Actually, one even isn't a couple anymore, but after their divorce, the husband (a college classmate of mine) decided that it would be more trouble to change his name back to his original surname (he's an attorney who had been practicing under his married name for 10+ years) so he kept it anyway.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:08 AM on August 21, 2009


And I personally have never heard of married couples coming up with a new or combined name (outside of hyphenization), be it someone I knew in person or otherwise.

You must live somewhere really isolated!

I have a hyphenated last name, and my wife's name is also quite a mouthful, so our kids have a brand new surname.

At least two have our friends have also gone a similar route (and there was another couple in which the husband took his wife's name).
posted by larsks at 10:22 AM on August 21, 2009


Friend of mine has a novel surname created by clerical accident (it was supposed to be a middle name). His family has (I think) a novel surname anyway from when in 1966 Indonesia banned Chinese sounding names.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 10:43 AM on August 21, 2009


The anecdata in this thread alone seems to demonstrate that far from stopping, the wholesale invention of new surnames is probably accelerating.
posted by rokusan at 4:56 PM on August 21, 2009


You must live somewhere really isolated!

Perhaps. For the record, I wasn't asserting that the phenomenon didn't exist or that it was overexaggerated, just that... well, I'd never heard of it, even regarding public figures. Of course, I may have known such people, and just didn't know about it.

It's kinda funny that this marriage name thing came up, as I'm relatively new to Facebook and was surprised that it was still fairly common for women to be adopting their husband's name (well, at least among the people I know).

The anecdote about the couple who got divorced and the ensuing headache of being stuck with the created name seems to make a case against the whole idea, but who am I to argue with a couple in love?
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 9:32 PM on August 21, 2009


Datapoint from 70 years ago: my English father was given a surname at birth that none of his parents/grandparents had - there are six different surnames there too. I've asked his mother and she couldn't give a straight answer if her life depended on it. I've kept birth name but my children have a created surname since my husband wouldn't take my name when we married.
posted by saucysault at 4:33 AM on August 24, 2009


Another data point: not sure if this is widespread in Egypt or only true for certain subgroups (like the Copts), but patronyms are used there as well (in a country with a much larger population than Iceland). If I remember correctly, the name is generally

Name Father Grandfather

One of the interesting features of this system is that you can instantly identify siblings and cousins by name. Siblings will have the same second name, cousins will have the same third name.

Obviously, not everyone in Egypt does this -- President Mubarak and his son, also surnamed Mubarak-- are examples of this. Not sure why one or the other.

In all fairness, though, I think that this doesn't really count. In Egypt, it seems unusual for new first names to be created, so in theory you wouldn't see many new surnames. Furthermore, the system for naming is fixed even if the names might change or expand.
posted by Deathalicious at 10:31 PM on August 24, 2009


the wholesale invention of new surnames is probably accelerating.

I think that's probably true. Even though the creation of new names (first and last) is not a new phenomenon, it seems to be much more popular now, and there does seem to be a bit less import placed on "preserving the family name".
posted by Deathalicious at 10:34 PM on August 24, 2009


« Older The Bird in the Hand, or the Two in the Bush?   |   Video Capture from secure database? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.