The Grammarphobia Blog

Hardy of heart

Q: My dictionary says the English word “surname” comes from the French sur (“over”) and nom (“name”). I speak French, but I can’t for the life of me understand why a “surname” (or “over-name”) should be a family name. In French, a family name is a nom de famille, a given name is a pénom, and a nickname is a surnom. Would you kindly explain the logic behind “surname”?

A: We got the word “surname” from French – actually the Anglo-French spoken by the Norman rulers of England – probably before 1300, according to The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology.

The English word originally referred to a title or epithet or nickname added on to someone’s name. The first published reference in the Oxford English Dictionary, dating from around 1330, refers to a knight whose “surname was: hardi of hert.”

Within a few decades, however, the word was being used to refer to a family name, perhaps because of a misunderstanding about the etymology of the term.

The word was sometimes spelled “sirename” or “sirname” or “sir-name,” suggesting that the “sur” of “surname” was thought by some to be related to “sire.”

As for your question, there may not be much logic behind why a surname is a family name in English, but the same can be said for a lot of idiomatic English words and expressions.

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