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?

  • First name is also often called given name or Christian name. Commented Jul 29, 2013 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). Commented Jul 29, 2013 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. Commented Jul 29, 2013 at 18:03
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    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
    Commented Jul 29, 2013 at 19:02
  • 2
    No, no one uses 'second' name for 'last name'. It sounds logical but is just not what people say.
    – Mitch
    Commented Jul 30, 2013 at 3:06

3 Answers 3


Your London friend may well be misinformed. Here is the British English only corpus from Google NGrams:

This Google Ngrams chart, which starts from the year 1800, shows that "his surname" was generally preferred over his last name" and "his second name". His second name was preferred over his last name until around the 1970s.

So, at least in written English, Brits definitely stick with surname, but in the United States of America, there has been a noticeable shift towards last name in recent decades:

This Google Ngrams chart, which starts from the year 1800, compares his surname, his second name and his last name. It shows that His surname was preferred until the 1980s, when Last Name surpassed it, although it should be noted that Last Name almost reached parity with it during the 1940s. Second name and last name were both more or less equally unpopular until the early 1900s, when Last Name began a general upward trend in popularity.

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 United States of America than Britain, but I suppose that is more by analogy with last name than because of secularist leanings.

This nGrams chart, starting from the year 1800, compares his first name, his christian name, and his Christian name. It shows that Christian name was more popular until the 1910s, when first name achieved parity. Christian name was regained some preference during the following years, but was overtaken by first name by around the 1930s. Christian name with a lowercase c was about as popular as Christian name with an uppercase C during 1800, but generally declined until it was even less popular than last name was during the 1850s, and it continued to decline in popularity since then.

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 is a link to a chart showing it is equally rare compared to first name, Christian name, and middle name. Partly because it's uncommon, it has no established unambiguous definition. Here is 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).

Collins Cobuild English Dictionary for Advanced Learners (4th edition) © 2003

And a "real" dictionary (such as the Oxford English Dictionary) does not 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 is no more meaningful than other name outside of context (personally I think it sounds a bit childish and uneducated, but that's just me! :).

  • 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
    Commented Jul 29, 2013 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. Commented Jul 29, 2013 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
    Commented Jul 30, 2013 at 3:04
  • It's too trivial of an edit for me to personally make in good conscience after the grace period, but I accidentally added a second s in is. >_< My apologies. More importantly, the citation I drew from your reverso page (it's hidden in a tooltip) strongly implies that it's from a "real" dictionary to me, but I do not own that dictionary to be completely sure, and I do not know how to rephrase that segement adequately. If you agree though, please consider rephrasing that segment.
    – Tonepoet
    Commented Jul 8, 2017 at 18:01
  • @Mari-Lou A: You took your time about biting back there - four years later! :) I must admit I can't see what you think is "rude and dismissive" about my first comment - apart from the unavoidable fact that I didn't and still don't think detailed analysis of recent data at regional level would be either practical or enlightening. Personally, I think this recent edit is somewhat "rude". It might make the text easier for some nns to read, but randomly expanding some of my contractions creates a rather stilted text, imho. But I'm not into edit wars, so I'll just turn both my other cheeks here. Commented Jul 9, 2017 at 12:31

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".

  • 1
    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. Commented Jul 29, 2013 at 17:56
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    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). Commented Jul 29, 2013 at 17:59
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    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. Commented Jul 29, 2013 at 18:05
  • @FumbleFingers Married into the peerage then, I see. :)
    – tchrist
    Commented Jul 29, 2013 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. Commented Jul 29, 2013 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.

  • Indeed, some 30 years ago I encountered some young Americans who saw the word 'Surname' on a form and had no idea what it meant. Commented Oct 11, 2016 at 8:25

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