A surname is a name added to a given name and is part of a personal name. In many cases a surname is a family name; the family-name meaning first appeared in 1375. Many dictionaries define "surname" as a synonym of "family name". It is also known as a "last name". In some cultures, the surname may be a patronymic or matronymic. Some cultures, for example the Burmese and some Javanese, do not use surnames.
In some cases, such as Chinese Indonesians and Chinese Thais, certain ethnic groups are subject to political pressure to change their surnames, in which case surnames can lose their family-name meaning. For instance, Indonesian business tycoon Liem Swie Liong (林绍良) "indonesianised" his name to Sudono Salim. In this case "Liem" (林) was rendered by "Salim", a name of Arabic origin, while "Sudono", a Javanese name with the honorific prefix "su-" of Sanskrit origin, was supposed to be a rendering of "Swie Liong".
Although surnames are commonly used as last names, in some cultures the surname comes first, followed by the given name or names; this is the case in Hungary, and countries in the Chinese cultural sphere (i.e. Japan, Korea, Vietnam and China). However, in Hong Kong and Japan, when Hongkongers and Japanese write their personal name in the Latin alphabet, it is common to reverse the order of their names for the convenience of Westerners, just as Hungarians do when associating with other Europeans. Reversing the order of names is also somewhat common in Estonian and Finnish, which are Finno-Ugric languages like Hungarian.
The meanings of some names are unknown or unclear. The most common European name in this category may be the Irish name "Ryan", which has no known meaning. Other surnames may have arisen from more than one source: the name "De Luca", for instance, likely arose either in or near Lucania or in the family of someone named Lucas or Lucius; in some instances, however, the name may have arisen from Lucca, with the spelling and pronunciation changing over time and with emigration. The name "Lee" may be English, but it may also be an Anglicization of the Chinese "Li".
Surname origins have been the subject of much folk etymology, often by individuals intent on proving that their own surname is more noble or royal than the average name. The name "Ryan" mentioned above, for example, is often said to be derived from Gaelic words meaning "little king"; this etymology is commonly found on name origin websites and in less stringently edited books. Some folk etymologies also develop because a name is seen to be coarse or crude: the surname "Death" is explained away as being an Anglicization of "D'Ath" for this reason.
In French Canada until the 19th century, several families adopted surnames that followed the family name in order to distinguish the various branches of a large family. Such a surname was preceded by the word "dit" ("said") and was known as a "nom-dit" ("said-name"). While this tradition is no longer in use, in many cases the nom-dit has come to replace the original family name. Thus the Bourbeau family has split into Bourbeau dit Verville, Bourbeau dit Lacourse, and Bourbeau dit Beauchesne. In many cases Verville, Lacourse, or Beauchesne has become the new family name. Likewise, the Rivard family has split into the Rivard dit Lavigne, Rivard dit Loranger and Rivard dit Lanoie. The origin of the nom-dit can vary. Often it denoted a geographical trait of the area where that branch of the family lived: Verville lived towards the city, Beauchesne lived near an oak tree, Larivière near a river, etc. Some of the oldest noms-dits are derived from the war name of a settler who served in the army or militia: Tranchemontagne ("mountain slasher"), Jolicœur ("braveheart"). Others denote a personal trait: Lacourse might have been a fast runner, Legrand was probably tall, etc.
The Icelandic system, formerly used in much of Scandinavia, does not use family names. A person's surname indicates the first name of the person's father (patronymic) or in some cases mother (matronymic). The words patronymic and matronymic derive from Greek patr (father) and matr (mother), + onyma (name). Most family names in other Scandinavian countries are a result of this naming practice, such as Hansen(son of Hans), Johansen(son of Johan) and Olson(Son of Ole/Ola) the three most common surnames in Norway.
Patronymic name conventions are similar in some other nations, including Malaysia (see Malaysian name) and other Muslim countries, among most people of the Indian states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala (unlike another Indian state Andhra Pradesh, where ancestral origin village names have become surnames for the people), in Mongolia and in the Scottish Gaelic personal naming system. In Russia and Bulgaria, both a patronym and a family name are obligatory parts of one's full name: e.g. if a Russian is called Ivan Andreyevich Sergeyev, that means that his father's name is Andrey and his family name is Sergeyev. A similar system is used in Greece. However, unlike the Icelandic case, only the family name is generally identified as a surname proper.
In the United States, 1,712 surnames cover 50% of the population, and over 1% of the population has the surname Smith. Approximately 70 percent of Canadians have surnames that are of English, Irish, or Scottish derivation.
Some estimates say that 85% of China's population shares 100 surnames. In China the names Wang, Zhang and Li are the most common.