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I have recently been told by a Londoner that "second name" is the most common way of referring to one's surname. She explained that it arose from the fact that most people just use their first and last names, therefore "second name" and "last name" became synonyms.

This has given me some food for thought and I've become curious on a couple of points:

  1. Is this practice in use elsewhere?
  2. Does it cause misunderstandings when a person happens to have a middle name and, therefore, second and last name aren't coincident?
  3. So, in this fictitious name, what could be called what?
    • Mary (first name)
    • Sue (middle name / ?second name? or ?second given name?)
    • Smith (surname / family name / last name / ?second name?)

On a slightly different note, when non-English names that have multiple surnames are involved, how would one refer to them? For example: Ana Maria Silva dos Santos Pereira, where "Ana Maria" correspond to 2 given names and "Silva dos Santos Pereira" correspond to 3 family names (typically inherited from both mother and father's side).

4) Would everything in between "Ana" and "Pereira" be considered middle names?

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First name is also often called given name or Christian name. – Nicholas Jul 29 '13 at 17:46
@Nicholas: A point I made somewhat more laboriously half an hour ago in my answer. I must say I'm surprised to see that the capitalised version is now overwhelmingly favoured for that one (but overall the usage has massively declined everywhere). – FumbleFingers Jul 29 '13 at 17:50
@FumbleFingers Sorry, I did scan through your answer but mostly looked at the pictures. :-) I saw you said "given name" and though re-iterating it as a comment to the question would be useful. I somehow missed that you had mentioned the latter too. – Nicholas Jul 29 '13 at 18:03
@Nicholas: My bad. I've now added highlighting for those in my answer text. – FumbleFingers Jul 29 '13 at 18:08
If you have a middle name, then that is your second name. For instance, Johann Sebastian Bach's second name is clearly Sebastian. Any other intended meaning of "second name" in this context stretches the semantics of the word "second" well past the breaking point. – Kaz Jul 29 '13 at 19:02
up vote 8 down vote accepted

Your London friend is sadly misinformed. Here's the UK-only corpus from Google NGrams

enter image description here

So Brits definitely stick with surname, but in the US, there's been a noticeable shift towards last name in recent decades...

enter image description here

Probably most Anglophones have one middle name, but there are plenty of people who only have a first name and a surname. And many people have two or more of what I've never heard called anything other than middle names (first and middle names collectively are called forenames).

Over recent decades, people increasingly tend to avoid the religious implications of christian name. Somewhat surprisingly to me, it appears first name is more favoured in the US than the UK, but I suppose that's more by analogy with last name than because of secularist leanings.

enter image description here

Forms such as given, birth, married name etc., are relatively uncommon, in that they're only normally used in contexts where they're needed to disambiguate. Usually, given name(s) are forename(s) your parents gave you at birth, if these aren't what you call yourself in later life (for whatever reason). That can also apply to birth name, but this is also used to contrast with the married name (most women still adopt their husband's surname, which may also be indicated by Mrs Smith, née Jones).

As the charts show, second name is quite rare compared to surname (and last name in the US). Here's a link to a chart showing it's equally rare compared to first name, Christian name, and middle name. Partly because it's uncommon, it has no established unambiguous definition. Here's a typical online entry...

second name (second names, plural) Someone's second name is their family name, or the name that comes after their first name and before their family name.
(where family name is just a somewhat less common alternative to surname).

And a "real" dictionary (such as OED) doesn't even bother to define such a vague collocation. As various comments indicate, it could also mean a nickname, stagename, alias, nom-de-plume, etc. In fact, to different people in different times and places, second name can mean just about any name or part of a name that's not the first name. It's no more meaningful than other name outside of context (personally I think it sounds a bit childish and uneducated, but that's just me! :).

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Wouldn't the data have been more relevant if it had focused its attention within the last twenty years, say? And, Google NGrams stop around 2000. It could be that Londoners, not British people overall, prefer to call surnames "second names". Regional data, concentrating on the last twenty-years would, in my view, have a sounder scientific base. – Mari-Lou A Jul 29 '13 at 17:41
@Mari-Lou: I don't really think focussing on the last 20 years would make a fat lot of difference. We'd almost certainly see the same general patterns, but they'd be less obvious without the context of standard usage in preceding decades. If the data were available, I've no doubt that particularly children (particularly in poorer/less educated socio-economic groups) would show a more marked tendency to use second name instead of surname, but I can't see that level of detail being relevant to OP here. – FumbleFingers Jul 29 '13 at 17:48
What you're showing but not saying explicitly is that people just don't use 'second name' much, and if they do, it doesn't mean middle or last name, it would mean something like a nickname or alias. Well, maybe you don't mean that, but that is the case. – Mitch Jul 30 '13 at 3:04

While anecdotal, as a Brit (and Londoner), were someone to ask me what my "second name" was, I'd answer with my middle name.

Less anecdotally, here's the advice for changing your name by deed poll, from the UK government website. Which clearly uses "surname".

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As another "Londoner" (close enouogh, anyway), I think it would depend on context for me. As it happens, I and my four siblings only have one middle name each, but five of the next generation have two middle names, and one has three. – FumbleFingers Jul 29 '13 at 17:56
Granted, but without any further context, i.e. someone just walks up to me and says "What's your second name?", then I'd go with my middle name (or I suppose the first of my middle names, should I have more than one). – MartinSGill Jul 29 '13 at 17:59
Without any further context I doubt that anyone would ever just walk up and ask you that particular question. But I find instances in Google Books of my second name is Smith, Jones, etc., so it's at best ambiguous. – FumbleFingers Jul 29 '13 at 18:05
@FumbleFingers Married into the peerage then, I see. :) – tchrist Jul 29 '13 at 18:19
@tchrist: Actually, the reason is more that when my parents were naming me and my siblings, they didn't really bother about re-using any first names already established within either the paternal or maternal antecedents - we just got a couple of standard (mainly, "biblical") names each. But for the next generation we all chose one "unique" first name each that we (as parents ourselves) liked, and mostly we took one more from each of our paternal/maternal ancestors. – FumbleFingers Jul 29 '13 at 18:30

As a Brit, I would never think that second name meant surname.

I have one forename and a surname. If asked for my 'second name', I would assume that the person were asking for my second forename and would answer that "I don't have one".

As mentioned in a comment, I have noticed that web forms from US organisations tend to use last name when Brits would be more likely to use surname.

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