What is the difference between the three terms: surname, family name and last name?

Do they mean the same?

Or are there any particular contexts wherein one is more appropriate than the other?

  • You may find this of interest: Last name v. Surname
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Commented Jun 13, 2011 at 19:39
  • 1
    I've noticed that the term "last name" can be confusing to immigrants [particularly] from China because in the Chinese language people present the family name first when saying or writing a person's full name. Commented Jun 13, 2011 at 19:54
  • It is quite interesting if you see system followed in Sri Lanka For example, my name: XXX Mudiyansealge (Family Name) XXXX XXXXX (given names) XXXXX (last name). I find it very difficult to plug this in to applications and in IT systems.
    – user36250
    Commented Jan 23, 2013 at 0:30
  • 1
    I would personally also add second name to the list? Commented Jan 29, 2015 at 19:31

2 Answers 2


Surname and last name both imply position, assuming a construct of "given name, family name". This doesn't work in countries that reverse this to "family name, given name", like China. Using "family name" and "given name" avoids the confusion of having last names first and first names last.

  • 2
    It's not clear that surname implies positioning at the end. "Sur" means above, which suggests coming before the given name (in top-down, L-to-R order as English is written). To someone who knows the modern meaning of surname, it is unambiguous, but generally "family name" is preferred if non-native speakers may be in the audience, since it requires a smaller vocabulary.
    – mgkrebbs
    Commented Jun 13, 2011 at 21:28
  • 1
    On the other hand, surcharge means "an additional charge or payment", so I understand surname as "an additional name".
    – mikiqex
    Commented Aug 1, 2017 at 9:20
  • All names are given names, are they not?
    – lindhe
    Commented Nov 18, 2017 at 18:34
  • @lindhe not at the same level. Some distant ancestor probably created what you use as your family name and it's been in use since; your parents presumably chose your given name. Commented Nov 18, 2017 at 23:07

"Last name" is the name that comes after the first and middle names, and is used in titles i.e. Mr. "last name" or Miss "last name".

Although "surname" is generally understood as the "last name", and used in titles, this is not necessarily so: Here's a definition of "surname":

a name added to a person's name, as one indicating a circumstance of birth or some characteristic or achievement; epithet.

"Family name" is one that is shared with the family, but is not necessarily the surname.

A good example to sum all this up would be the name of the main character of Kidnapped, David Balfour of the Shaws.

His family name is the Shaws, but he is addressed as "Mr. Balfour". His surname, in this case, is the same as his last name.

  • 5
    This definition of "surname" is does not correspond to the way the word is usually used today: it is archaic or technical.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Jun 14, 2011 at 13:28

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