8

surname
noun [ C ] mainly UK (US usually last name); (UK also second name)
the name that you share with other members of your family; last name:

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"?

  • 7
    You will find that it is not black and white the way you have presented it. – tchrist Mar 18 '13 at 15:44
  • It comes down to individual personal habits, and they vary. My own experience (77;5, DeKalb IL) is that surname is a word one encounters written, not spoken. – John Lawler Jul 18 at 15:55
  • FWIW, Wikipedia is fully on board using "family name" as their default page, given the problems with "last name" in the Hispano- and Sinospheres and the additional sense "surname" can have, inclusive of epithets and nicknames. – lly Jul 18 at 16:16
  • Ancestry.com is also using “last name” in its search forms. So have, if memory serves, genealogy software for individuals, which began to be popular in the mid-1990s. – Xanne Jul 20 at 2:29
4

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

Link to Ngram

  • @MissHarper778 you can choose it as an answer, if you will – Jader Dias Mar 18 '13 at 15:21
  • 2
    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
  • 2
    Ngram also shows "last name" passed "family name" in about 1980. – GEdgar Mar 18 '13 at 17:42
  • This is not an answer to the question. It is a link. Old news, but should be edited or downvoted. – David Jul 15 at 20:49
3
+50

Short answer: last name became more popular in America at some point after 1950. It has not entirely supplanted surname, but it is definitely used more often.

First, I put surname and last name into the Corpus of Historical American English. This corpus covers the period from 1810 to 2009, and so covers a broad swath of American history. I wanted to get a sense of how frequently each appeared in the corpus, at what dates they appeared, and whether I gleaned anything from early samples.

Surname in COHA:

Frequency: 392 results Earliest date: 1827, in The Buccaneers: A Romance of Our Own Count[r]y in Its Ancient Day by Judah, Samuel B. H.

However, from the transaction just detailed, the patient magistrate acquired the surname of den Springer, or the Hopper, owing to the badness of his eyesight, which forced him to jump over the afore-mentioned item of fifty schellings.

Distribution and Context: feels uniform. There are multiple results in almost every decade, including the 2000s. It generally refers to a familial name from samples I looked at.

Last name in COHA:

Frequency: 786 results. Earliest date: 1823, in Randolph: A Novel by Neal, John.

he heard the names of Maria Howard, and Helen -- somebody -- (the last name he did not hear,) pronounced

Distribution and Context: Again, last name was used frequently across time. It's hard to glean much from context, but seems to generally mean a familial name.


Comparison: Both usages are used from early in the corpus samples onward. In total, last name appears twice as often as surname.

Distribution is a relevant factor here. Last name becomes more common over time. For example, the midpoint of the results (result 393) occurred in 1983, whereas the midpoint for surname (result 196) occurred in 1946. For reference, the 1946 results for last name start with result 178. 178 and 196 are pretty close in count - that tells me that the word occurred at about the same frequency before about 1950.

After that, surname became more common. For last name, results 200-300 are from 1950 to 1969; over the same period, surname has results 207-249. By the year 1983, 50% of surname's results have appeared; for the year last name has had 68% of its results appear. That indicates both a decline in usage for surname compared to last name and also its continuing use: 32% of its results remaining is smaller than 50% but still a fair number of uses.

All of that indicates that both words appear frequently in American discourse throughout US history after 1810 to refer to a familial name, but that at some point in the 20th century last name becomes a much more frequent usage compared to surname. I would not describe this move as a "switch" - surname never disappears. (As a speaker from the American South, I can confirm recognizing it, using it, and even seeing it on government forms.) Rather, last name is a preference or habit that has emerged over the last 50 or so years.

2

Early instances of 'last name' in the sense of 'surname'

Google Books and Elephind newspaper database searches yield ten matches for "last name" in the sense of "surname" during the period 1782 to 1841. A number of these early instances come from British sources. In both British and U.S. sources, "last name is significantly less common than "surname" during this period. certainly less frequent than instances of "surname." Here, in context, are the ten instances of "last name."

From John Muirhead, Dissertations on the Foederal transactions between God and his Church (Kelso, Scotland, 1782):

The patriarch's [Abraham's] first name was [four Hebrew characters] : His last name [five Hebrew characters] The former imports an high father ; the latter, as explained by God himself, means a father of many nations.

From Charles Wilson, The Wandering islander; or, The History of Mr. Charles North, volume 1 (1792):

Before I quit the house, I must take notice that Thomas Ap Richard Ap Howel Ap Jevan Vychan, Lord of Mostyn, and his brother Piers, founder of the family of Trelacre, were the first that abridged their name, and that on the following occasion : Rowland Lee, Bishop of Litchfield, and president of the Marches of Wales, in the reign of Henry VIII, sat at one of the courts on a Welch cause, and wearied with the quantity of Aps in the jury, directed that the pannel should assume their last name, or that of their residence ; and that Thomas Ap Richard Ap Howel Ap Jevan Vychan should for the future be reduced to the poor disyllable Mostyn, no doubt to the mortification of many an ancient line.

From a review of Henry Bromley, A Catalogue of Engraved British Portraits, from Egbert the Great to the Present Time in The Gentleman's Magazine (London, March 1794):

Presuming, then, upon the propriety of this method, I have observed, as a necessary consequence, in the recital of the titles or designations of the articles of persons of eminence, to state the highest rank which they at any time enjoyed, although such title or rank should not be expressed in the inscription of any of their prints. In like manner, the female sex, whose portraits have been drawn when single persons, when married are described by their last name.

From a theatrical review in The Monthly Mirror (London, June 1798):

June 7.—This theatre [Covent-Garden] closed with He's much to blame and Rosina. Rosina by a young lady, being her first appearance. This young lady's name—that is, her last name (for she has had many) is Francis, and comes from the Royalty Theatre. Our report may be given in five words:—some voice—no taste—a bad eat—abundance of affectation—and no lack of impudence.

On eight other cards, write the same names, with this restriction, that the first name, on each of them, must be taken from that card of the other parcel, whose last name begins with D, the second name from that whose last name begins with 1, ...

From "Reform Dinner at Brighton," in Cobbett's Political Register (London, March 2, 1822):

Thus is the wonder [of Cobbett's influence] explained ; and for this we are indebted to Mr. Scarlett. His name, unhappily for him, has no such charm. His first name, Peter, having five letters, and his last name having eight ; names having nothing "singular" in them, and numbers nothing necromantic! and, accordingly, we find it agreed on all hands, that Peter Scarlett is no conjuror, and has not "such influence," I will not say upon "classes of society," but upon any half dozen men in the kingdom, who have the reputation of having brains in their skulls.

From a notie in the [Vevay, Indiana] Weekly Messenger (August 3, 1833):

Permit me to caution you respecting your tickets. I have seen a number of tickets in circulation, on which my last name is spelled 'Herick,' by whom and for what purpose, those tickets were printed, I know not. See, that my name is spelled BELA HEAH1CK.

From "Fashionable Phraseology," in the New-York Mirror (August 16, 1834):

But further, if the phrase is to be a plural one ["the Misses Browns" as an alternative to "the Miss Browns"], there is, (as I alleged above,) another argument against the the substitution and addition. It is, that the phrase, "the Misses, whose name is Brown," is, in itself, a most gross violation of sense and grammar. If the additional unnecessary words are insisted on, they make another word necessary. The sentence is not English, unless you say, "whose common name," or "whose family name," etc., or something equivalent to that. For each person has one name, and two or more must have names; though the last name of one may be the same as the last name of the other; i. e. though their last name be common to them all.

From Frederick Thomas, East and West: A Novel, volume 2 (Philadelphia, 1836):

"...Did I understand you to say that Ralph was your name, sir—Ralph Beckford?"

"Yes, sir," replied Ralph, "that is my name."

"Well, Mr. Beckford, knowing as I did that your last name was Beckford, I had the impression, my young friend, that your first name was Ralph. ..."

From a translation by the Rev. J.J. Holroyd of Essex of George Lessing's "The Traeasure" (Colchester, 1838):

Raps: Yes, my good old gentleman, I must tell you—now attend to me: if you were to begin quite early, as soon as the morning breaks, with my first name, and go along as quick as you could, I would wager a good sum that the sun would long be down before you could arrive at the first letter of my last name.

From James Fenimore Cooper, The Deerslayer (1841):

"Well, Deerslayer, I'm not one of them," answered Hetty, simply ; "Judith likes soldiers and flary coats, and fine feathers ; but they're all naught to me. She says the officers are great, and gay, and of soft speech; but they make me shudder, for their business is to kill their fellow creatures. I like your calling better; and your last name is a very good one—better than Natty Bumppo."

Two or three of these instances, such as the one in The Monthly Mirror of June 1798, may be using "last name" in the sense of "most recent name," although I would have expected a woman's first name (however recently acquired) to be spelled Frances rather than Francis. But most of these occurrences clearly use "last name" in the sense of "surname."


Ngram results for 'surname' and 'last name'

With regard to the relatively frequency of "surname" in the American English corpus and in the British English corpus, the difference is not great.Here is the American English Ngram chart for the period 1790–2008:

And here is the British English chart for the same period:

As these charts show, for the period from 1840 to 2008, the frequency of occurrence of "surname" in the corpus American English has ranged between 0.00030% and 0.00015% and in 2008 was at 0.00020%. For the same period, the frequency of occurrence of "surname" in the corpus British English ranged between 0.00060% and 0.00025%, and in 2008 was at 0.00025%.

And here are the corresponding charts for "last name" over the same period for the corpus American English:

and for the corpus British English:

In the case of "last name," the frequency in the corpus American English rises from about 0.00004% in 1930 to 0.00024% in 2008, and the frequency in British English rises from less than 0.00002% in 1930 to about 0.00006% in 2008.

These charts invite several inferences:

  1. "Surname" has maintained a fairly steady (though gradually declining) frequency in both British English and American English between 1840 and 2008; and as of 2008 appeared at surprisingly similar frequencies in Google Books' corpus British English (0.00025%) and its corpus American English (0.00020%).

  2. As of 2008, "last name" was roughly four times more frequent in American English (0.00024%) than in British English (0.00006%).

  3. The increase in frequency of "last name" between 1960 and 2008 is approximately 5X in the corpus American English and 3X in the corpus British English.


Conclusions

To sum up, here are the answers I reach to the questions that the poster asks:

Have American English speakers always used the term “last name” instead of “surname”?

No. They have sometimes used "last name" instead of "surname"—but they have also used "surname" quite a lot. Both terms appear to be widely used in American English today. As of 2008, Google Ngram data indicate that the frequency of "last name" (at 0.00024%) is slightly higher in the corpus American English than that of "surname" (at 0.00020%).

It is by no means clear, however, that "last name" appears only in situations where the meaning "surname" is intended. For example a search for "last name on the list" for the years 2004–2008 turns up four matches, in none of which is "last name" used in the sense of "surname." In contrast, "surname" necessarily appears only in contexts where "surname" is intended. So the relative frequency of "last name" and of "surname" in Google Books search results does not constitute a reliable apples-to-apples comparison.

How long it has been this way?

Evidently, for as long as there has been a United States, there have been some American English speakers who said "last name" and some ho said "surname"—and very possibly some who said "last name" on some occasions and "surname" on others.

If AmE speakers ever used the word "surname," when did they switch to using "last name"?

Between 1850 and 2008, the frequency of "surname" in the corpus American English declined by less than 0.0001 percentage point; over that same period, the frequency of "surname" in the corpus British English by almost 0.0002 percentage point. So perhaps a better question would be, "Why did the frequency of usage of "surname" decline at more than double the rate in BrE than in AmE?"

It is true that by Google Books' calculations the frequency of usage of "last name" in the corpus American English has increased almost tenfold since 1900 (and a bit less than threefold in the corpus British English). But given that very little of that increase is mirrored by a decline in the use of "surname," I suspect that the rise of "last name" is largely independent of the fortunes and usage of "surname" in written American English.

In my highly conjectural view, the likeliest source of such an increase is the proliferation of preprinted forms (and references to preprinted forms) that request the name of the person filling them out and that may tend to specify "last name" rather than "surname" because their creators think fewer people in a demographically diverse group will be unsure about what a "last name" is than about what a "surname" is.

  • 1
    Not much point doing my own reply when @TaliesinMerlin you're running the numbers so well, but my own take would be that surname is perfectly American and just taken as more formal (and thus, as you mentioned, upper-class educated and white) and American society as a whole is becoming more informal in speech. You still do see "surname" in many formal or upper-class forms. – lly Jul 18 at 16:12
  • I mostly like this. One point is strange statistically: "So perhaps a better question would be, "Why did the frequency of usage of "surname" decline at more than double the rate in BrE than in AmE?" How significant of a shift is 0.0001 percentage points versus 0.0002 percentage points? One percent of an apple may be double than half a percent of an apple, but that doesn't make the difference between the two that concerning, since I'm still getting almost no apple. OTOH, I can imagine situations where even a tiny percentage point difference is significant. I wish Ngrams gave an idea of scale. – TaliesinMerlin Jul 18 at 17:54
  • 1
    @TaliesinMerlin: You're right that it's easy to get so caught up in the appearance of a line graph that you lose track of scale, and that Ngram sometimes magnifies a real-world molehill into a mountain. On the other hand, it's also relevant that the line graph in this case draws on discrete sets of publication dates over a period of more than 200 years, so if there is a discernible trend line over that period, it suggests that some degree of change is occurring in the data population itself that goes beyond random year-to-year variation. Still, I agree with you that skepticism is warranted. – Sven Yargs Jul 18 at 18:20
-1

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.

  • 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
  • 4
    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
  • 2
    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
  • 2
    (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 '14 at 17:28
-4

"Last name" is preferred in American usage because it is easier to understand from its components than "surname". It is rather similar to Americans talking about "standing in line" instead of "standing in a queue". Such simplification might be due to the fact that historically there were larger numbers of non-native speakers of English learning to speak English in the U.S. than in the U.K.

  • 1
    Welcome to ELU. Please provide a citation/reference supporting your answer. You may want to take the site tour to understand how this site works. – alwayslearning Sep 27 '16 at 13:27
  • 2
    This answer is backwards. Ngrams shows that Brits stood in a line until around 1900, when they started queuing up. So it's not that Americans simplified the language; we're still speaking the way we always did – Peter Shor Jul 14 at 13:24
  • If you speak from the perspective of a list, sure. What's last is last. But, that does very little to explain anything at all about the actual question, given that this is mostly a supposition. – psosuna Jul 17 at 23:43

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.