A family name (in Western contexts often referred to as a last name) is a type of surname and part of a person's name indicating the family to which the person belongs. The use of family names is widespread in cultures around the world. Each culture has its own rules as to how these names are applied and used.
In many cultures (notably Euro-American, Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African) the family name is normally the last part of a person's name. In other cultures, the family name comes first. The latter is often called the Eastern order because Europeans are most familiar with the examples from East Asia, specifically China, Korea, Japan and Vietnam. Since family names are normally given last in European societies, the term last name is commonly used for family name.
Family names are most often used to refer to a stranger or in a formal setting, and are often used with a title or honorific such as Mr, Mrs, Ms, Miss, Dr, and so on. Generally the given name, first name, forename, or personal name is the one used by friends, family, and other intimates to address an individual. It may also be used by someone who is in some way senior to the person being addressed. This practice also differs between cultures, see T-V distinction.
In this article, family name and surname both mean the patrilineal (literally, father-line) surname, handed down from or inherited from the father's line or patriline, unless explicitly stated otherwise. Thus, the term "maternal surname" means the patrilineal surname which one's mother inherited from either or both of her parents. In contrast, the "matrilineal surname" or "mother-line surname", handed down from or inherited from the mother's line, is treated in its own section of a totally separate article, to avoid complicating this large Family name article—see Matrilineality's Matrilineal surname section.
Onomastics is the study of proper names including family names. A one-name study is a collection of vital and other biographical data about all persons worldwide sharing a particular surname. The Guild of One-Name Studies is a major UK-based organization in this field.
The oldest use of family names or surnames is unclear. Surnames have arisen in cultures with large, concentrated populations where single, personal names for individuals became insufficient to identify them clearly. Many cultures use additional descriptive terms in identifying individuals. These terms may indicate personal attributes, location of origin, occupation, parentage, patronage, adoption, or clan affiliation. These descriptors often developed into fixed clan identifications which in turn became family names as we know them today.
In China, according to legend, family names started with Emperor Fu Xi in 2852 BCE His administration standardised the naming system in order to facilitate census-taking, and the use of census information. For scientific documentation that matrilineal surnames existed in China before the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BCE) and that "by the time of the Shang Dynasty they (Chinese surnames) had become patrilineal", see Matrilineality's China section.
In Japan, family names were uncommon except among the aristocracy until the 19th century.
In Ancient Greece, during some periods, it became common to use one's place of origin as a part of a person's official identification. At other times, clan names and patronymics ("son of") were also common. For example, Alexander the Great was known by the clan name Heracles and was, therefore, Heracleides (as a supposed descendant of Heracles) and by the dynastic name Karanos/Caranus, which referred to the founder of the dynasty to which he belonged. In none of these cases, though, were these names considered formal parts of the person's name, nor were they explicitly inherited in the manner which is common in many cultures today.
In the Roman Empire, the bestowal and use of clan and family names waxed and waned with changes in the various subcultures of the realm. (See Roman naming conventions.) At the outset, they were not strictly inherited in the way that family names are inherited in many cultures today. Eventually, though, family names began to be used in a manner similar to most modern European societies. With the gradual influence of Greek/Christian culture throughout the Empire, the use of formal family names declined. By the time of the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century, family names were uncommon in the Eastern Roman (i.e. Byzantine) Empire. In Western Europe where Germanic culture dominated the aristocracy, family names were almost non-existent. They would not significantly reappear again in Eastern Roman society until the 10th century, apparently influenced by the familial affiliations of the Armenian military aristocracy. The practice of using family names spread through the Eastern Roman Empire and gradually into Western Europe although it was not until the modern era that family names came to be explicitly inherited in the way that they are today.
In the case of England, the most accepted theory of the origin of family names is to attribute their introduction to the Normans and the Domesday Book of 1086. As such, documents indicate that surnames were first adopted among the feudal nobility and gentry, and only slowly spread to the other parts of society. Some of the early Norman nobility arriving in England during the Norman Conquest differentiated themselves by affixing 'de' (of) in front of the name of their village in France. This is what is known as a territorial surname, a consequence of feudal landownership. In medieval times in France, those distinguishing themselves by this manner indicated lordship, or ownership, of their village. But some early Norman nobles in England chose to drop the French derivations and simply call themselves after the name of their new English holdings.
During the modern era, many cultures around the world adopted the practice of using family names, particularly for administrative reasons, especially during the imperialistic age of European expansion and particularly from the 17th to 19th centuries onward. Notable examples include the Netherlands (1811), Japan (1870s), Thailand (1920), and Turkey (1934). Nonetheless, their use is not universal: Icelanders, Tibetans, Burmese, Javanese, and many people groups in East Africa do not use family names.
Family names sometimes change or are replaced by non-family-name surnames under political pressure to avoid persecution. Examples are the cases with Chinese Indonesians and Chinese Thais after migration there during the 20th century, or the Jews who fled to different European countries to avoid persecution from the Nazis during World War II.