John Larrysson Column: Last Names and Family Names

Modern English family names come from many sources. Some are old tribal or clan names like McDonald or Saxon. Other family names are from old professions like Smith or Taylor. Still others are where the family came from, such as Hill or Murray (from Moray Firth). Two of the four American presidents carved on Mount Rushmore have family names taken from English towns. A few names were from physical characteristics, like Short. Women when they get married take the family name of their husband; their previous family name is called their maiden name.

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In ancient times the Norse had a different tradition of last names. There were no family names, as we have today. In ancient Norse countries, and indeed in Iceland to this day family names are still rare. Instead of a family name people had a patronym. Patronyms are names derived from their father's first name. Today most people in Iceland still follow the ancient patronymic system. The famous 11th century Norse explorer Leif Ericsson's first name was Leif, his patronym was Ericsson. Ericsson means the son of a man named Eric. Bera Yngvarsdóttir was the mother of Egil Skallagrimsson, who I mentioned last week. Bera Yngvarsdóttir's first name was Bera. Her patronym was Yngvarsdóttir. That means she was the daughter (dóttir) of a man named Yngvar. Many family names in use today were patronymic in origin. (Such as Larrysson)

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In the modern English tradition women change their last name after marriage, but not in the old patronymic tradition. In a family of four, a married couple with a boy and a girl, will all four have different last names. (The last names will be different, unless of course the father and grandfather had the same first name.)

In ancient times and in modern Iceland people addressed each other by their first name. The patronym is never used alone. People used to say for example, "Hello Egil" or "Hello Egil Skallagrimsson," but never "Hello Skallagrimsson". Many people actually said, "Please don’t kill me" when they met Egil. (He was not a nice person.) No one would ever be called Anderson (Andrew’s son), but they might be called, John or John Anderson. In modern Iceland only a few people, who are recent immigrants, use family names. (New family names cannot legally be chosen.)

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Please note that these words usually mean the same thing (synonyms):


1. First name, personal name, given name, Christian name (if Christian)



2. Family name, surname, last name (unless a patronym)

by John Larrysson

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A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for more than a decade.