Choosing Last Names

Does anyone know of a source I could use to choose last names for characters?  To look up meanings, find out where they originated?  


November 3, 2013 12:06 PM

I had never looked at the surname section of behindthename before, but I just took a look.  I checked out a couple of lists from languages/cultures with which I am familiar, and I must say I am not as comfortable with the surname section as I am with the given names.  Of course, the lists are not comprehensive, they couldn't be, but I could not discern much rhyme or reason for what was in and what was not.  The lists, for example, do not necessarily reflect the most common names in that language or culture. In some cases, the choices seem, well, eccentric. 

One of the lists I checked was Dutch. The "Dutch" surnames do not consistently distinguish between Dutch and Frisian.  Frisian (Frysk) is a different, although closely related, language from Dutch, and Frisian names, both surnames and given names, are distinctive.  I spot-checked the Dutch list, and I saw many common Frisian names, but only one of the ones I saw was labeled Frisian.

For picking names of characters behindthename is fine, but for uses requiring more accuracy, I would check additional sources.

November 5, 2013 2:28 AM

I never look at the lists. I just look up individual names.


November 3, 2013 11:43 AM

Dictionary of American Family Names (Hanks)--expensive reference book to be consulted in an library.  Has surnames from different ethnicities and languages with their origins


Oxford Dictionary of English Surnames (Reaney)--the inexpensive paperback version--this is a standard reference and gives origins, but obviously it's only English names


Just recently there was an essay about cemeteries in the NYTImes.  Among other things the author, a writer, mentioned that he got names for characters by browsing the headstones in cemeteries, a sort of recycling, if you will.

You can also look up online the origins of any surname that comes to mind, but the information given will be less than reliable.  Some sources will be good, some will not.

By EVie
November 3, 2013 4:28 PM

I use the Oxford Dictonary of English Surnames (the second book that Miriam cited), and find it incredibly useful.

If you only want to check origins & meanings, you can look surnames up on—they are using the first book Miriam cited as their source, so it is reliable. I haven't explored to see if there's any way to browse the complete list, though. Here is a link to the search page:

November 3, 2013 5:38 PM

I did a quick check of my maiden name on the ancestry search feature just to see.  My maiden name is uncommon, but not unheard of.  I didn't think that the entry for my maiden name was all that thorough and accurate, but there was also a "see also" link to a variation of the name, and that entry was all I could have expected from a brief reference book entry.  One surname is a vanishing small sample from which to judge, but I was well satisfied with what I saw.

November 3, 2013 9:00 PM

Thank you so much for these sources and your comments!