Why do we have last names?

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com

Last names are an outgrowth of the need of the government to tax people:

Until at least the fourteenth century, the great majority of Europeans did not have permanent patronyms. An individual’s name was typically his given name, which normally would suffice for local, vernacular. If something else were required, a second local designation was added indicating (in the English case), say, occupation (smith, miller, baker), geographical location (edgewood, hill), the father’s given name (in Jewish and Middle Eastern practice preceded by “ben” “ibn” “bin” or in the Celtic case preceded by “O’”, “Mc”, “Ap” or, as in the French case, simply appended, as hypothetically with Victor (son of) Hugo) or a personal characteristic (strong, short, doolittle, fair, newcomb). These secondary designations, however, were not permanent surnames, they did not generally survive their bearers.

The acquisition of last names is, in fact, an exceptionally sensitive measure of the growing reach of the state. The census [or catasto] of the Florentine state in 1427 was an audacious (and failed) attempt to rationalize the administration of revenue and manpower resources by recording the names, wealth, residences, land-holdings, and ages of the city-state’s inhabitants. At the time, virtually the only Tuscan family names were those of a handful of great families [e.g., Strozzi] whose kin, including affines, adopted the name as a way of claiming the backing of a powerful corporate group. The vast majority were identified reasonably unambiguously by the registrars, but not by personal patronyms. They might list their father and grandfather (e.g., Luigi, son of Paulo, son of Giovanni) or they might add a nickname, a profession, or a personal characteristic. It is reasonably clear that what we are witnessing, in the catasto exercise, are the first stages of an administrative crystallization of personal surnames. And the geography of this crystallization traced, almost perfectly, the administrative presence of the Florentine state. While one-third of the households in the city declared a second name, the proportion dropped to one-fifth in secondary towns, and then to a low of one-tenth in the countryside. The small, tightly knit vernacular world had no need for a “proper name”: such names were, for all practical purposes, official names confined to administrative life. Many of the inhabitants of the poorest and most remote areas of Tuscany — those with the least contact with officialdom — only acquired family names in the seventeenth century. Nor were fifteenth-century Tuscans in much doubt about the purpose of the exercise; its failure was largely due to their foot-dragging and resistance. As the case of Florence illustrates, the naming project, like the standardization of measurements and cadastral surveys, was very much a purposeful state mission.

Western state-making in the seventeenth and eighteenth imposed permanent patronyms as a condition of citizenship. It became well nigh universal with the exception of Iceland which, for folkloric reasons in most cases, mandates the old Norse system (i.e. Magnus Ericson, Katrin Jónsdóttir). The telephone directory there lists subscribers by given name and occupation. Nations such as Iran, Turkey, and Thailand that have imposed permanent patronym as a state project in the twentieth century have until comparatively recently organized the phonebook alphabetically by given name. The imposition of permanent, anglicized patronyms on indigenous peoples of North America coincided, in the United States, with the issuance of property deeds connected to efforts to seizing the bulk of tribal lands, and in Canada among the Inuit, with interventions by the welfare and health bureaucracies. Both episodes make for a reading that is filled with equal parts of hilarity and melancholy.[1] Burma, Indonesia, Malaysia and much of the Middle East have not adopted permanent patronyms but now have moved to more modern technologies of personal identification.