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I am aware that speakers of British English generally use the term "surname" and AmE speakers use "last name." What I want to know is how long it has been this way, i.e. if AmE speakers ever used the word "surname" and if so, when did they switch to using "last name"?

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You will find that it is not black and white the way you have presented it. –  tchrist Mar 18 '13 at 15:44

2 Answers 2

The usage of "last name" has been increasing in the last 200 years:

Link to Ngram

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Thank you. This is very helpful! –  MissHarper778 Mar 18 '13 at 15:18
    
@MissHarper778 you can choose it as an answer, if you will –  Jader Dias Mar 18 '13 at 15:21
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That's an interesting Ngram, to be sure, and I hope MissHarper will eventually choose an answer. However, given that this is a new user, I'd also mention that it would be best to wait about a day or so before choosing a "most helpful" answer, since others might want to take a crack at answering this question as well. –  J.R. Mar 18 '13 at 16:05
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Ngram also shows "last name" passed "family name" in about 1980. –  GEdgar Mar 18 '13 at 17:42
    
+1 for the Ngram. –  camelbrush Mar 18 '13 at 19:42

In AmE as defined by Merrian-Webster, a surname is referred to as (1) the family name (e.g. Barack Obama) or (2)the assumed name (e.g. Leonardo DaVinci).

A last name, which according to M-W, is not synonymous nor equivalent to surname. A last name is the literal last name in a person's full name.

Therefore, Mr. George Jerry Jones of Ellen's surname could be Jerry-Jones or George of Ellen, while his last name is Jones.

In America, last name only usage became popular in the mid 1800s; one possible theory is the tendency for Americans to be averse to any British tendenacies following the Wars of Independence and of 1812. Another theory is Americans do not have any regency titles, location-based titles (of Ellen, de Gama, et cetera) or multiple family names (as in some romance cultures). American last names almost always are the surname. The need to distinguish last name and surname became less common, as early 1800 Americans prefered the "common man" approach to self titling e.g. John Smith, not John Smith of Boston.

If I find references and sources I will post them; this is simply from memory concerning a discussion once held in my English Literature class in 2007.

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As for if and when there was a definitive shift in usage, I do not know. Maybe going back and reading colonial vs. commonwealth vs. republic historical documents can reveal patterns indicating changes in vernacular usage. –  endowdly Mar 18 '13 at 19:18
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I would have to disagree. In American English, "last name" and "surname" are synonyms. In fact, Merriam-Webster explicitly lists "last name", "surname", and "family name" as synonyms. (Although note that for some archaic naming conventions such as Leonardo da Vinci, John of Gaunt, Leif Ericson, the "surname" is the same as the "last name" but is not the "family name".) Gabriel Garcia Marquez's last name is Garcia Marquez. –  Peter Shor Mar 18 '13 at 20:05
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For a patient whose name is Zhou Enlai, who, say, happens to be tourist from China hospitalized in, say, the Univ of MA hospital and being admitted by his sister Zhou Enbai - try writing Enlai and Enbai as the lastnames, the hospital would either reject your form or you would screw up their systems. Therefore, for practical reasons in North America, lastname and surname are synonymous regardless of any academic opinions. –  Blessed Geek Mar 19 '13 at 0:08
    
Does synonymous always mean equivaliant? Or can unequivalant words be used interchangeably, thus acquiring "synonym" status. e.g. shank and tang. But, I digress, @Blessed Geek makes an excellent point. –  endowdly Mar 19 '13 at 18:42
    
(To me, in American English), when speaking of American-style names, there is no difference between "last name", "surname", and "family name". If I were speaking of, e.g. Chinese people's names, I'd try to use "surname" or "family name", only using "last name" to explain to those unfamiliar with the other terms. –  Tim S. Feb 20 at 17:28

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