Sapient creatures generally have personal names assigned by their parents. In societies larger than one monkeysphere, these names tend to have multiple parts.
Given names are often specific to males or females. Many can be inflected for either gender, such as Patrick and Patricia, or irregularly such as Theodore and Dorothy.
The dominant pattern in much of the industrialized world is to have at least one given name and a family name that matches the father's family name. In Hungarian and East Asian names, the family name comes first, but names from some nationalities are reordered with the family name last in languages of "western" cultures where the family name ordinarily comes last (e.g. Japanese video game designer Shigeru MIYAMOTO in English). Chinese, Vietnamese, and most Korean names, on the other hand, remain in "eastern order" with the family name first even in English (e.g. Chinese basketballer YAO Ming), as do pre-Meiji Japanese names. This order confusion has led to a convention of writing the family name in all capital letters.
Family names were not always fixed, especially as each culture adopted more than one name. Before surnames came into use, people used bynames derived from an occupation, personal trait, place name, geographic feature, ancestor's given name, or name of a patron or employer. The process may have resembled that dramatized in the short film "Stuff That Must Have Happened: The Invention of Last Names". The shift from bynames to surnames, where a son's family name matches that of his father, may have been generalized from a tendency that one's place of residence or occupation is that same as that of his father. But some people still find bynames based on occupation easier to remember than surnames.
Family names in some places still are not fixed even in the twenty-first century CE. Both Habesha names and Icelandic names are made of a given name followed by the father's given name. In Icelandic names, but not Habesha names, the father's given name is inflected with a genitive suffix meaning "son" or "daughter". In a variant, Finland used to use patronyms for boys and matronyms for girls. Russian names have both this patronymic element and an ordinary surname. But the thing about surnames of patronymic or occupational origin is that surnames based on a common given name make it hard to guess whether people are related. Conan "Coco" O'Brien, Soledad O'Brien, and Miles O'Brien are unrelated (I think), but all had an ancestor named something similarly to "Brien" when surnames were fixed. So there are reports that some cultures use a theoretically unbounded chain of patronymics, as the Welsh once did, trimming after enough generations for a given situation. This inverted pyramid naming convention is practical in languages with noun-genitive and preposition-noun order.
In some cultures, people's names change at certain major life events. Some cultures cope with high infant mortality by not naming a baby immediately,[unreliable source] instead assigning a name at a naming ceremony after a burn-in period of a week to a month. Various American Indian nations would assign a "milk name", which would be replaced based on the person's actions between birth and coming of age. Women in several cultures usually adopt the husband's family name after marriage, traditionally as a symbol of the father handing over care of the bride to her new husband. But in the twentieth century CE, women in the Western world began to explore other options. Occasionally, the husband takes the wife's name, or they both adopt a hyphenated "double-barrel" name. Or especially when the wife is a professional writer or performer, both spouses may keep their names. It's not entirely unheard of to create a new last name for a newly married couple or for the children. It may be original symbolizing the new life as a married couple, or it may be a portmanteau of the spouses' original family names.
In DC Comics' Superman franchise, naming conventions in the dominant culture of the fictional planet Krypton were not too different from those of most Euroamerican cultures on Earth. Men's names consisted of a given name and a family name. For example, Clark Kent was born Kal-El, where Kal is the given name and El is the family name, which matches that of his father Jor-El. Unmarried women took the father's given name as a middle name: Kal-El's mother was Lara Lor-Van (daughter of Lor-Van) before she married Jor-El. For married women, DC writers tend to just dodge the issue by not mentioning surnames at all.
In J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle-earth, only Hobbit culture uses hereditary surnames such as Gamgee or Baggins. The rest of Middle-earth largely uses patronymics (Gimli son of Gloin; Aragorn son of Arathorn) or nicknames (Gandalf the Grey).
The gnomes of Dragonlance use the chain of patronymics model; one's knowledge of his ancestry is said to "go on for volumes if not stopped." Ogier in Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series, Icecarls in Garth Nix's The Seventh Tower series, and characters in Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Chronicles apparently use the Finnish convention with patronymic chains for men and matronymic chains for women.
In one continuity (can't remember which), children whose parents die or otherwise become incapable of caring for them become wards of the court and attend
an orphanage a public boarding school.
Governments fund these boarding schools by stealing money from citizens in the purported interest of investing in the next generation.
Some schools have a policy of changing orphans' family names to that of a particular hall's guardian, and some may even graduate as part of the school's "family".
(In the real world, on the other hand, boarding school-type orphanages died in 1980 in favor of individual foster homes.)
Similarly, Max Barry's novel Jennifer Government posits a culture that uses an employer's name as a surname: Tim Cook would be "Tim Apple".
This SMBC illustrates practical problems when given names get too long: Naming Trends
- List of character names used in Pin Eight projects
- "There Are 7 Types of English Surnames — Which One Is Yours?". Ancestry.com. Accessed 2014-08-08.
- Pauli Poisuo. "5 Everyday Situations That Wrack Us All With Anxiety". Cracked, 2016-07-09. Accessed 2016-07-10.
- Wikipedia:Joe the Plumber
- The Last Name Project Accessed 2012-10-17.
- Brette McWhorter Sember. "The Last Word on Last Names". BabyZone. Accessed 2012-10-17.
- Whose last name should you give your baby? Accessed 2012-10-17.
- Our New Name: Vermeer 2011-07-06. Accessed 2012-10-17.
- The Last Name Project: M. 2012-04-24. Accessed 2012-10-17.[dead link]
- The Last Name Project: Sue Accessed 2012-10-17.[dead link]
- Here I bend the convention of using the present tense when discussing events in fiction because Superman takes place after Kryptonian culture has already been wiped out.
- One telling of "Three Little Pigs" mentions graduation but not surnames
- C. Coville. "7 Ridiculously Outdated Assumptions Every Movie Makes". Cracked, 2012-04-02. Accessed 2012-12-29.