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Last Name Meanings
Your last name provides innumerable clues about your family and ancestors. The study of last name meanings, their roots and their possible developments is truly intriguing.
Ranjan Shandilya
Last Updated: Apr 20, 2018
It is very difficult to ascertain the origin of a surname. Most surnames are derived from a root, and the interpretations of this root might be made differently by various cultures and ethnicities.
Let's look at an example to understand this concept. Most of us have heard of the surname Kay. Now this surname can have one of the following etymologies:-
  • The first obvious guess would be, this is an occupational name given to those who were either key makers or key keepers. Here, it might have been derived from Old English caeg, which meant key.
  • It might be derived from kaye, which is Old French for quay, basically a dock. Here, it again takes an occupational nature.
  • It might be a derivative of the word ka from Old Norse, which means a jackdaw. Thus, in this circumstance, it might be given to a person who has resemblance to the bird.
  • Another possibility is that this name might be of Celtic origin, derived from Welsh or Cornigh derivatives Cai and Key respectively.
We can thus see that determining the exact origin of a surname mostly leads us to an impasse. Yes, for some surnames it is possible to trace the authentic root, but for most, it is just about making the most perfect guess. In what follows, we shall have a look at some of the most common surnames according to different ethnicities.
Meanings Of Common Last Names
Root:- Smitan, which means to strike or smite
Meaning:- People who worked with metal (blacksmiths, etc.) used this name.

These jobs were few of the earliest jobs for which humans needed skilled labor, thus making this a really old surname. Since these professions were practiced globally, we see a lot of derivations for this surname, such as Smyth, Smythe, Schmidt, etc. The origin of this surname is Anglo-Saxon, or as we call it today, Old English.
Root:- Derived from Yochanan, Hebrew for 'Jehovah has favored'.
Meaning:- This is a patriarchal surname that means 'Son of John'.

This surname is famous specially among European Christians. A lot of saints were named John, specially St. John the Baptist. Jones is said to be the most common surname in Wales. A few derivations are John, Johnson, etc.
Root:- Guillemin, meaning William in French
Meaning:- Son of William

Interestingly, this patriarchal surname might also be derived from Belgic welhelm, which means the 'shield of most'. Another possibility is that it was derived from Germanic elements wil and helm, meaning desire and helmet respectively.
Brown or Browne
Root:- Broun (Old English) or brun (Old French), both meaning brown.
Meaning:- The color denotes a person's hair and/or complexion, sometimes even clothes.

The 5th and 6th most popular surname in England and United States respectively, this is a descriptive surname. Some say it could have also passed as a nickname and eventually developed into a surname.
Root:- clerk and clerec in Old English and Chlerich and Cleireach in Gaelic.
Meaning:- Clerk and/or priest.

This occupational surname was conferred upon several literate people. In its basic form, it means a clerk - someone who can read and write. In Old English, clerk and clerec also meant 'priest'. But why Clark and why not clerk? This is because '-er' was pronounced and written as '-ar' during Middle Ages.
Root:- Irish O'Murchadha
Meaning:- Descendant of sea warrior

This same last name in Gaelic means 'strong' or 'superior'. In the 2000 Census Data, this was the most common surname in Ireland (with its various forms). It was used by people who worked in the navy of various kingdoms. Also, it can be concluded that 'sea warrior' might also be a term used for many other professions apart from the obvious navy.
Root:- Latin Martinus
Meaning:- 'Mars', the Roman God of war and fertility

This was earlier just a given name. As of today, this is the only available meaning of this surname. Other variations include Marten, Martain, Martyn and Martine.
Root:- German compound bern-hard
Meaning:- Resembling a bear

Bern is the old form of bear and the name might symbolize someone who has the strength of a bear. Variations of this surname include Barnard, Bernart, Bernhardt, etc.
Root:- Aramaic t'om'a
Meaning:- Byname for twin

This last name was assumed by one of Christ's disciples, with an implication that meant 'twin-brother'. Earlier, it was just a personal name and was adopted as a surname much later. Today, it is common not only in France, but also in Britain, especially in Wales. Even in the United States, it is one of the most common surnames.
The surname 'Thomas' is widely used by the Nasrani families from South India. The British first used 'Tomas', the Italians used 'Tommasi' and 'Toma' and the Germans used variations such as 'Thom' and 'Thoma'.
Root:- Latin rous
Meaning:- Red

This is a descriptive surname and the most common in Italy. It is the plural form of Rosso which in Italian means 'red'. Rosso is derived from rous, which also means 'red'. Alternatively, it is also said that 'The Rossi' was a Scandinavian tribe, whose members were called Rossi.
In Italy, you will find that Rossi is used in the southern parts while in the northern areas, people use Rosso. In lot of texts, Italians have been referred to as 'red heads'. It might thus also mean that this was essentially an ethnic name.
Root:- Old Italian ferro
Meaning:- Blacksmith

The root ferro is derived from Latin ferrum, which also basically refers to an iron worker. Essentially, it is an occupational surname with its origin solely in Italy.
Root:- Latin expositus
Meaning:- Placed outside and/or exposed

Children who were abandoned, were given this surname. It is the most common surname in Naples, Italy. Another study says that this might be a topographical surname for people who 'lived outside', perhaps the outskirts.
Root:- Basque artz
Meaning:- Bear

This descriptive last name with its variants Gartzi, Gartzia, and Gastea, mean 'the young'. However, it is also said that hunters in historic ages, were known by the animals they hunted. It is also a very common surname in Spain, Cuba and the U.S.
Root:- Latin Martinus
Meaning:- Son of Martin

This last name is frequently spelled sans the acute accent on 'i'. As we already know, the English equivalent of this surname is Martin; the Romanian is Martinescu; and the Italian ones are Martinelli, Martinolli and Martini.
Root:- Germanic hrod and ric
Meaning:- Son of Rodrigo

Just like Martinez, this surname is also patronymic, which literally means 'son of Rodrigo'. The 'ez' or 'es' means 'descendant of'. Rodrigo in turn means 'famous power'. However, an interesting point here is that the key elements are Germanic. These elements are hrod, which means 'fame' and ric means 'power'.
Root:- 7th Century element 'leah'
Meaning:- An open place in a forest

This surname has Olde English origins. Apart from the obvious - people living in a clearing in a forest, this last name might also be used by those who lived in places that were called Lee, Leah, Leas or Lea.
Other Common Last Names and their Meanings
The surname is basically English. It is either an occupational name given to people who worked in barns or some say it is derived from beorn which is Old Norse for warrior. It could also be given to people who lived near a barn.
The basic derivation of this surname is from Latin capella which first stood for a hood or cloak but was later referred to a chapel. Also, people from Capel in Suffolk, Kent and Hertfordshire took this as their locational name.
This is an occupational name which was given to people who transferred goods by carts.
This again is an occupational name given to people who covered roofs with tile or slate. It is said to be of German origin. Later it was also used for people who built decks of vessels.
This is an Irish name, but it originates from Welsh Dylan. It is said that this last name is derived from de Leon which means 'of the lion'.
This is a habitual name containing two separate words, ea meaning water, and ton meaning settlement. Hence, it could refer to people staying in a town close to a water body.
A last name of Welsh origin, Evan means the 'son of Evan'. It is derived from Welsh Ifan who was a cognate of John. In Welsh 'f' is pronounced as 'v'.
This is both, a personal and family name. It is derived from Latin Fabius which means bean. It may have also been a family name for people who cultivated beans.
This is an occupational name for people who worked with iron, like smiths.
Both a given name and surname, it was an occupational name for people who sold hinges.
A more popular female given name than surname, Gillian has a Latin root lulus which means youth.
This last name was used by people who were descendants of Clan Hannay. The origin of this surname is Scottish and a common derivative is Hannah.
This name has been derived from a given Norman name Ivo. Ivo was in turn used for any name that started with the Germanic compound Iv. Then again, this 'Iv' was a derivative of old Norse yr. 'Yr' stood for a bow made of wooden tree. This name gained popularity in England during the Conquest and might have been common among warriors or similar tribes.
This is an example of a first name becoming more famous as a surname. The first name (Middle English origin) that acts as its derivative is Juwet and/or Jowet (meaning Julian). To these, you add 'et(te)' - an Anglo-Norman French suffix. Later, these were adopted as surnames.
This last name has various etymologies, each having strong derivatives. It might be the anglicized form of Gaelic Ó Ceannéidigh (grandson of Ceannéidigh). Ceannéidigh is derived from the Gaelic words Ceann and éidigh which mean 'head' and 'ugly' respectively. Another etymology suggests that it might also be anglicized from Cinnédidh or Cinnéidigh, both of which mean 'helmet headed'. It might also be adapted from Cennétig which was the surname of an old Irish King.
NOT after the festival, but a habitational name from a place called Lent in Gelderland, Netherlands. It might also be derived from a lost place called Leent, but there isn't much information available about the same. Another etymology suggests that Lent might be a Americanized version of the German name Lenth.
This surname is derived from the diminutive of the Old French name Lawrence or Laurence, meaning victory. Kin might be added to indicate a relative. It might also be adapted from Irish O'Lorcain, the son of Lorcan, where Lorcan roughly stands for cruel.
Derived from Mayer, which is an occupational name for mayor, this is an English name. However, because of the addition of 's', this would mean 'son of Mayer'. It might have been also derived from Old French mire, which means 'physician'. In German, it would refer to the town magistrate. Other versions are Meyers, Myars, Myeres, Miares, etc.
This name is derived from not(te) which meant 'bald'. It was used as a nickname for a man who was either bald, or who kept his hair extremely short. It is also said to have certain German influences like not(e) which means 'nut', but this seems a little unlikely.
This last name might have been derived from the word norreis, which is Norman-French for 'northerners'. It might also be used by people who had their houses in the north of a village. In this case, it is derived from 7th century words 'nor' and 'hus', meaning north and house respectively. It might also be French, derived from norrice, a word describing a nurse.
Essentially, this was an occupational surname meaning 'seller or processor of olive oil'. People with this surname belonged to the powerful Fraser Clan. The root of this surname is Olivarius, Latin for the olive tree. It might even have a relation to Óleifr, Old Norse for 'ancestral relic'.
Not very sure, but it is said that this name is derived from 'Horatius', which is Roman in origin. In Latin, hora means hour. Though this is known of the surname, how it further changed to Orvis, remains a mystery.
This surname has its origin in the 7th century word praett, which means a 'trick'. We can thus conclude that this name was given to magicians or people of similar professions. The origin of the surname is Anglo-Saxon.
In Middle English and Old French, page stood for a friend or related knighthood. However, it also stood for 'a servant'. It was definitely a job-descriptive surname. How it became a hereditary surname is unknown.
Derived from the Olde English term ridere, which in turn is a derived from ridan, this surname was conferred upon mounted warriors. The terms ridere and ridan meant 'to ride'. After a few centuries, it was said to be replaced by knight. The second possibility, is that this surname was derived from ried or ryd, both words meaning 'clearing in a wood'. When we add the suffix '-er' to these words, the resulting meaning might mean someone who lives in the clearing in a wood.
This surname is habitational in nature. It refers to people who lived in Raleigh in Devon, a county is South West England. Its roots are Old English, possibly read, leah that somewhere stand for wood clearing. These details however, aren't clear.
There are three etymologies of this last name. The first obvious one is that this name was adopted by residents of villages called 'Saxton'. Such villages exist in Surrey, Cambridge and Yorkshire. Second, it might so be that the ancestor of a person with this surname was a sexton or church warden. Third, it might be anglicized from O'Seastnain (Gaelic Irish). Here, O'Seastnain stands for 'descendant of Seastnan (bodyguard)'. This in turn is derived from seasuighim which means to defend.
This might be a locational name derived from a marked town in Middlesex, which was earlier recorded as Stane or it might be a derivative of Old Scandinavian steinn which means stone. According to the latter, it might roughly translate to 'one who stays near the stone'.
It might be an Old French nickname rooting from tison, meaning fireband. It is also a version of the surname 'Dyson', derived from the name Dennis (female), which in turn is derived from Latin Dionysius who was a follower of God Dionysis. In this case, it is a metronymic name of Semitic origin.
The name is derived from Tiffin, which is in turn derived from Tiffania, which again is derived from Theophania, which in Greek stands for 'to appear like God'. Theophania is a compound of theos and phainein, which mean 'God' and 'to appear' respectively.
Derived from ussier, an Old French word, this surname exists from the 7th century. An occupational surname, this was given to people who decided whom to allow and whom to not allow in presence of the nobility, in a royal kingdom. It is said that their status was even above that of the Marshall.
This is a habitational name for someone who has resided in the city of Ulm. Some people also say that people who lived at the confluence of the Danube and Blan, were conferred with this surname.
Van Dam
In this surname, van stands for 'of' or 'from'. Thus, this is a habitational name for someone who belongs to an area located near the dam.
This name might have actually been a nickname for an unruly person as wilde means 'undisciplined' in Old English. Then again, it might have another root weald which means an uncultivated land. In this context, it might be a habitational surname.
It is an occupational surname for men who kept a watch, wake and mann meaning 'vigil' and 'man', respectively. Both 'wake' and 'mann' have their roots in Olde English.
It's a locational surname which points to two rivers, one in Scotland and the other in North West England.
Every surname is developed from a root. If you want to know the meaning of your last name, it is very important you reach the root(s). Every last name has a meaning, and knowing what yours signifies, will only get you closer to your roots.