Ask John- 'When Did People Start Using Last Names?'

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In the spirit of mother's day, I'm answering a question from one of my family members.

Unfortunately my mom did not get the chance to send me a question, but my Aunt did.

So Aunt Itzel from Crestview noticed that many people from ancient history are only known by their first names, so she asked me this:

When did people start using last names?

Aunt Itzel, that's a good question.

It certainly helps when you have a common first name like John for instance, but when did last names come about?

The nice folks at gave us the answer.

The officials say the use of a last name is fairly new to human history, and was started to legally distinguish between two people with the same first name.

The Chinese were among the first cultures to adopt this practice nearly 5000 years ago. says the use of last names first appeared in Venice, Italy somewhere around the 10th or 11th centuries, and it soon spread its way through Europe.

But your last name could actually tell you a lot about your ancestors.

Surnames came from 4 different sources- the father's name, where the family is from, an occupation or social status, or a nickname that describes your looks or personality.

Here are some examples-

'Peterson' means son of Peter.

The last name 'Kirkpatrick' means from the Church of St. Patrick.

The surname 'Cooper' means Barrel Maker.

And if your last name is 'Reid', then your ancestors had red hair.

It may be just a name, but a last name can unlock secrets to your family history.

Thanks for your question Aunt Itzel!

If any of you have a unique or interesting question, ask me!

Just send it to:

Ask John!
1801 Halstead Blvd
Tallahassee, FL 32309

or email it to

Be sure to let me know your name and where you're from and if you're lucky, I'll answer your question LIVE next Sunday!

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