Most people these days don’t really think about where they got their surname from. The main reason for this is probably because we have this surname from the very first day that we are born and therefore become so used to it that we don’t even question where it came from. However, it can be quite interesting to see why people started using second names as well as their first names.
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It’s unclear exactly when surnames became popular all over the world, but it’s believed that even as far back as 2800BC an Emperor from China decided to introduce surnames so that they could take a census and record information easier, after all, it wouldn’t be a good idea to have thousands upon thousands of people with the same first name since it would be difficult to tell them apart, especially if they live in the same area!
Many centuries ago, while the Romans were still in power, they started using surnames or second names in order to identify people. In many cases, the second names that were given to a certain individual either related to their current job or what most of their family worked as. This means that if you have a surname such as Smith, there’s a good chance that this name was given to your family because they worked with metal. However, when the Romans finally lost their power surnames became rarer each and every year. Back then surnames weren’t inherited, so it’s easy to see why they didn’t catch on. All the way up to the 10th century people had only a first name to go by, but this soon changed.
Surnames become widely used in Europe before any other part of the world and one of the first countries to bring in fixed surnames was Ireland. At the start of the 10th century, Tigherneach Ua Cleirigh died and this surname (O Cleirigh) was the first surname to be recorded in Europe.
England didn’t use surnames for another one hundred years or so than when Ireland first introduced them. Most historians believe that it was only the rich and powerful who used surnames in England at the beginning of the 11th century. It then spread over a long period of time and as we all know, everyone has their own surname at the moment!