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Between last name and surname, which one is British and which one is American? If I talk with somebody from Great Britain, which one is preferable?

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Surname is technically more accurate: which name goes last depends on the language. But I'm biased, being Hungarian and a names geek besides. –  JPmiaou Apr 1 '11 at 13:14
    
[Deleted the answer converted to comment by mod as it was an answer and not a comment] –  Kris Dec 5 '12 at 7:59

5 Answers 5

There is no distinction in American English. Both last name and surname are used, but last name is more common. The dictionaries I checked do not give the term as a British variant.

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Why do you say last name is more common? My sources (BNC, ngram) say the opposite. –  z7sg Ѫ Apr 1 '11 at 11:46
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Maybe because I see it and hear it more often. In casual conversations here, nobody ever asks "what's his surname": they say ask what a person's "last name" is. Any government form you fill out will have you list "First Name / Middle Initial / Last Name" as well. –  Robusto Apr 1 '11 at 11:50
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@z7sg: Robusto said American English, and Peter Taylor's statistics confirm that 'last name' is somewhat more common in the US. –  Colin Fine Apr 1 '11 at 13:31
    
@Colin Fine But ANC returns 45/22 in favour of surname. UK government forms use 'last name', even though most people in the UK would say 'surname' imo. Perhaps that has something to do with political correctness. –  z7sg Ѫ Apr 1 '11 at 13:44

Surname would be the normal UK term, although last name would be sometimes used and understood.

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COCA has 507 "surname" vs 1790 "last name". BNC has 315 "surname" vs 43 "last name". So while neither word belongs exclusively to one side of the Atlantic, "last name" is preferred in AmE and "surname" in BrE.

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I'm only familiar with the USA. The only place I ever see surname is in classic literature. Last name is used everywhere else.

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As someone who has lived on both sides of the Atlantic, speaking both American and British/Commonwealth English, I would say that, regardless of what the dictionaries might tell you, last name is distinctly American usage, while surname is arguably British/Commonwealth usage

If you have access, take a look at forms generated on both sides of the pond. In America, I doubt you would find any asking for your surname. In the UK, RSA, etc, I doubt you would find any indicating last name. And trust me, if you said surname anywhere in the US, you may still be understood. You'd probably be excused if you had a noticeable British accent. Otherwise, you'd just sound weird.

The only term that might be equally common in both American and British usage is family name, especially in formal documents and the like. For regular conversation however, I think the above discussion holds.

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