Names are an important part of any language. What kinds of names do people have? Are they named for plants, animals, places, ancestors? Do you give your children names that mean nice things, or names that make them sound unattractive (to ward off elves and other child-stealing creatures)? Do children get middle names, and if so, are these always the names of their mothers or fathers?
Names can be very simple (“John”) or very complex (“Edward Valsey Raymonds-son d’Auburn-et-Champagne”). One part of the name that tends to only appear in societies with centralized bureaucracies for tax collection is the last name (a.k.a. the family name or surname). People who live in rural villages often feel no need for formal family names; they make do with informal descriptions that can change from day to day (So John may be referred to as John Robertson, John Baker, Big John, Ruddy John, Emily’s John, John of Lockhaven…). This is one reason why few people other than aristocrats had formal last names during or before the Medieval period. It’s only when outside officials turned up wanting to know who exactly owned that meadow that many of our ancestors were assigned formal last names.
Informal “last names”—A speaker may use any last name to describe someone that will help his listener to identify the person. A given individual may have many “last names,” and his children may or may not have some of the same ones.
Formal last names – A given individual is assigned a single last name, often due to official pressure, and his children will inherit it.
For those of us in America, it can be hard to remember that our last names mean something. We may not speak the language that our last names come from, or may simply have forgotten the significance of the names. Our names often feel like collections of random, maybe nice-sounding syllables. This impacts the way that we create names for story characters. We give them names that don’t mean anything—thereby losing a wonderful opportunity to think about the language and culture of the people we’re creating!
Classes of Last Names
There are four main classes of last names (as well as many minor ones).
1. Patronymics (Father’s name). Thomas, the son of Daniel, might be referred to as Thomas Danielson. If he is Scottish, he may be Thomas MacDaniel; if Irish, he may be Thomas O’Daniel. In the Middle East, he could be Thomas ben Daniel or bar Daniel. Different languages have different ways of showing “son of” in last names. Some languages also use matronymics (the mother’s name), especially for daughters. Aristocrats may use multiple patronymics (for example, both the father’s name and the grandfather’s name).
(Informal) Daniel Michael-son
(Formal) Paul Thomasson
2. Place Names. The lower classes were often named for the town or village where they were born. Aristocrats were named for their important land-holdings. So Emile, who holds the town of Metteneye in France, will be Emile d’Metteneye. John, born in Lockhaven, will be John of Lockhaven—or John of the Millrace, John of the Forest, John of the White Hill, John of Sixth Street. Place names can be pretty descriptive! Thus in English we have John Stone-bridge, John White-ford, John Hampton (Hemp-town), John Hill-man, John Braid-wood.
3. Occupation Names. Many last names refer to people’s occupations. Think about names like Smith, Baker, Chandler, Farr(i)er, Wagoner, Knight, Bishop, Farmer, Lord, Chamberlain, Freeman, Cook, Gardiner, Carter, Parsons, Carpenter. We have lots of these—many of them in languages others than English, so that we don’t recognize them anymore. Names like Knightman, Ladyman referred to the servant of the knight or lady, not the knights and ladies themselves.
4. Adjectival Names. Many last names describe someone’s physical appearance. Back in the day, names like Eric the Red (Haired) and John the Tall and Patrick Left-handed and Bob the Sad and Arthur Crook-leg were very common. Some of these survive in English: Moody, Peart, Sadd, Stout, Quick, Slight, Beard, Suckling, Ambler, Little, Blythe, Handy, Savage, Bachelor, Curtis (courteous), and so on.
5. Minor classes of last names include names of days or holidays (St. Thomas for the Feast of St. Thomas, Christmas, Easter, Munday, etc.); names of animals and plants like Oliphant, Tannenbaum, Drake, Bird, Rose, Nightingale; numbers like Twentyman; kinship terms like Eames (uncle), Cosens, Neves (nephew); names of virtues and vices like Love, Bliss; names of money like Pennyfarthing, Shilling, Pfennig; oath and curse forms like Godbehere and Purdue (par Dieu); names formed from an imperative verb and a noun like Dogood, Shakespeare, Ben(d)bow, Dolittle, Cutbush, Horniblow, She(a)rlock, Gotokirke, and Golightly; and probably many more!