My daughter asked me a few weeks ago why a last name is called a surname. I had no idea…but of course declared, “Word of the week!” and promptly looked it up. 😉

And it’s both straightforward and not. Sur is Latin for “above,” so the original meaning of surname was “an epithet, name, or title”–as in, something tacked on to one’s name. Think Catherine the Great or Sir William, Esquire. It began being used in that sense in the 1300s. But it only took about a hundred years for surname to be applied to family names instead of just titles or epithets.

I found it quite interesting to learn that family names came to the English world first among the Norman nobility in the 12th century. Commoners had begun to adopt the tradition a century later, but it began in the south of England and was slower to catch on in the north.

Do you know what your surname means or where it came from?

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