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durbanville eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Surnames (last names)or family names are steeped in history and culture and give people an insight into their heritage. In most cultures, surnames have a designation which stems from the original occupation, association (the most common one being son of), location or religion, clan or caste. Historically, they were considered to be an honor and many derivatives followed which indicate that there was a merging of families, cultures, religions and so on. Surnames sometimes became first names and middle names often contained a father or mother's surname. 

In Western culture, most people use the surname they were given at birth which, for females, will usually change upon marriage. Traditionally, a woman takes her husband's name on marriage and any children then take this family name, being the father's surname. However, many women now retain their original surnames or do not take their husbands' surname. Some create a double-barrel surname including both family names. Children are no longer assumed to carry the father's name although it is still the most common practice but many children do carry their mother's surname. For professional purposes, many women use their "maiden" surname although they have taken their husband's surname for social purposes.

Wikipedia Most_common_surnames_in_North_America lists Smith as the most common name, followed by Johnson, Williams and Brown. Some of these names, and many on the list, have been anglicized and altered slightly to reflect English-style spellings and many on the list reveal their apparent, universal origins.