About the Origin of Surnames
Prior to the 11th century, surnames were non-existent. With smaller populations, limited mobility and widespread illiteracy, individuals were generally distinguished by their locality, as a first name and place of birth was sufficient for identification. However, sometime between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries, surnames began to crop up, coming about through changes in culture and tradition.
Patronymic and metronymic surnames
A patronymic surname, the most commonly used type of surname, is derived from the name of a male ancestor or one's father. For example, the surname "Johnson" is derived from "son of John." Metronymic surnames are similar, but use the mother, instead of the father, as the source of the name.
Many surnames were also derived from occupations. A common example of this is "Smith" for a man who worked as a blacksmith, or Carpenter for a carpenter. In German, these would become Schmidt and Zimmerman.
Other surname origins
There were many other ways in which surnames were derived. Some surnames came from nicknames, such as Little, or physical descriptions, such as Black. In other cases, people were named after animals, because of personal attributes, such as Lamb for a gentle person, or Fox for a sly person. People were also named after location or geography, taking the place of their birth as a last name, such as York or England.
Surnames have changed over the centuries, and continue to change today. Many Immigrants have altered their surnames to make them easier to pronunciation and spell in their new countries. As language and culture have changed, so have names, making surnames ever evolving.