In the English-speaking world, a surname is commonly referred to as a last name because it is usually placed at the end of a person's full name, after any given names. In many parts of Asia, as well as some parts of Europe and Africa, the family name is placed before a person's given name. In most Spanish-speaking and Portuguese-speaking countries, two surnames are commonly used and in some families even three or more are used (often due to a family claim to nobility).
Surnames have not always existed and today are not universal in all cultures. This tradition has arisen separately in different cultures around the world. In Europe, the concept of surnames became popular in the Roman Empire and expanded throughout the Mediterranean and Western Europe as a result. During the Middle Ages this practice died out as Germanic, Persian, and other influences took hold. During the late Middle Ages surnames gradually re-emerged, first in the form of bynames (typically indicating individual's occupation or area of residence), which gradually evolved into modern surnames. In China surnames have been the norm since at least the 2nd century BC.
A family name is typically a part of a person's personal name which, according to law or custom, is passed or given to children from one or both of their parents' family names. The use of family names is common in most cultures around the world, with each culture having its own rules as to how these names are formed, passed and used. However, the style of having both a family name (surname) and a given name (forename) is far from universal. In many cultures, it is common for people to have one name or mononym, with some cultures not using family names. In most Slavic countries, as well as other countries including Greece, Lithuania and Latvia, for example, there are different family name forms for male and female members of the family. Issues of family name arise especially on the passing of a name to a new-born child, on the adoption of a common family name on marriage, on renouncing of a family name and on changing of a family name.
Surname laws vary around the world. Traditionally in many European countries for the past few hundred years, it was the custom or law that a woman would on marriage use the surname of her husband and that children of a man would have the father's surname. If a child's paternity was not known, or if the putative father denied paternity, the new-born child would have the surname of the mother. That is still the custom or law in many countries. The surname for children of married parents is usually inherited from the father. In recent years there has been a trend towards equality of treatment in relation to family names, with women being not automatically required or expected, or in some places even forbidden, to take the husband's surname on marriage, and children not automatically being given the father's surname. In this article, family name and surname both mean the patrilineal surname, handed down from or inherited from the father's, unless explicitly stated otherwise. Thus, the term "maternal surname" means the patrilineal surname which one's mother inherited from either or both of her parents. For a discussion of matrilineal ('mother-line') surnames, passing from mothers to daughters, see matrilineal surname.
It is common for women in the entertainment industry (like celebrities) to keep their maiden name after they get married, especially if they achieved their fame before marriage. The same can be said for women who achieved their fame during a previous marriage; For example: Kris Jenner (born Kris Houghton) was married to her second spouse Bruce Jenner (now Caitlyn) when she rose to prominence in the reality show Keeping Up with the Kardashians and singer Britney Spears has been married twice after she rose to prominence, but she still uses her maiden name.
In English-speaking cultures, family names are often used by children when referring to adults but are also used to refer to someone in authority, the elderly, or in a formal setting, and are often used with a title or honorific such as Mr., Mrs., Ms., Miss, Doctor, and so on. Generally the given name is the one used by friends, family, and other intimates to address an individual. It may also be used by someone who is in some way senior to the person being addressed. This practice also differs between cultures; see T–V distinction.
The study of proper names (in family names, personal names, or places) is called onomastics. A one-name study is a collection of vital and other biographical data about all persons worldwide sharing a particular surname.