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Given Name vs. Surname: What's the Difference?

Edited by Aimie Carlson || By Janet White || Published on November 28, 2023
A given name is a personal name assigned at birth or baptism, while a surname is a family name passed down through generations.

Key Differences

A given name, often referred to as a first name, is the name given to individuals at birth or baptism. It is a personal identifier, usually chosen by parents, and can be influenced by culture, religion, or family tradition. In contrast, a surname, commonly known as a last name, is a hereditary name shared with family members, passed down from one generation to another, and reflects ancestral lineage.
The purpose of a given name is to uniquely identify a person within a family or social group. It often carries personal or cultural significance, and in some cultures, the choice of a given name can be influenced by events or qualities hoped for the child. On the other hand, a surname serves to identify a person's familial background, connecting them to their ancestors and often indicating geographical, occupational, or clan origins.
In many cultures, the order of names is such that the given name precedes the surname. For instance, in Western cultures, John Smith would have John as the given name and Smith as the surname. However, this order can vary in different cultures. Surnames often remain constant within a family line, while given names are chosen individually for each child.
Given names can be changed or chosen by individuals later in life, especially in cases of adoption, religious conversion, or personal preference. Surnames, however, are less frequently changed and are typically altered in specific circumstances such as marriage or legal name change procedures.
The diversity in given names is vast, reflecting cultural richness and linguistic variety. Surnames, while also diverse, tend to have a more limited range within each culture, as they are rooted in historical and familial contexts and are meant to signify continuity and heritage.

Comparison Chart


Personal name given at birth
Family name inherited

Cultural Significance

Reflects individual identity
Indicates family lineage


High, with personal choice
Lower, tied to family heritage

Order in Full Name

Usually comes first
Typically follows given name


Can be changed personally
Changed in specific situations


Personal, cultural identity
Ancestral, geographical roots

Given Name and Surname Definitions

Given Name

A name that identifies an individual within a family.
Among her siblings, Lisa's given name is the most unique.


A family name passed down from generation to generation.
The surname Smith has been in their family for centuries.

Given Name

A personal name assigned at birth or baptism.
Emma's given name was chosen because it was her grandmother's name.


A name often indicating geographical, occupational, or clan origins.
The surname Baker was historically associated with the baking profession.

Given Name

The first part of a person's full name.
In the name David Johnson, David is the given name.


The last part of a person's full name.
In John Doe, Doe is the surname.

Given Name

The name used in day-to-day life to address a person.
Although her full name is Elizabeth, her given name used daily is Beth.


A name indicating a person's ancestral lineage.
Her surname, O'Sullivan, reflects her Irish heritage.

Given Name

A personal identifier selected by parents.
His given name, Alexander, was chosen for its historical significance.


A hereditary name common to all family members.
Despite their diverse given names, all siblings share the surname Nguyen.


A name shared in common to identify the members of a family, as distinguished from each member's given name. Also called family name, last name.


A nickname or epithet added to a person's name.


To give a surname to.


(obsolete) An additional name, particularly those derived from a birthplace, quality, or achievement; an epithet.


(obsolete) An additional name given to a person, place, or thing; a byname or nickname.


The name a person shares with other members of that person's family, distinguished from that person's given name or names; a family name.
James is my first name, and Smith is my surname.


(Classical studies) The cognomen of Roman names.


A clan.


(transitive) To give a surname to.


(transitive) To call by a surname.


A name or appellation which is added to, or over and above, the baptismal or Christian name, and becomes a family name.


An appellation added to the original name; an agnomen.


To name or call by an appellation added to the original name; to give a surname to.
Another shall subscribe with his hand unto the Lord, and surname himself by the name of Israel.
And Simon he surnamed Peter.


The name used to identify the members of a family (as distinguished from each member's given name)


What is a given name?

It's a personal name given at birth or baptism.

What does a given name signify?

It signifies personal identity and can reflect cultural or family values.

What does a surname signify?

It indicates family lineage and ancestral background.

What is a surname?

A surname is a family name passed down through generations.

Can a given name be changed?

Yes, given names can be changed or chosen later in life.

Can surnames change?

Surnames typically change in specific situations like marriage.

Is the given name the same as the first name?

In many cultures, yes, the given name is the first name.

How are given names chosen?

Given names are usually chosen by parents, influenced by various factors including culture and religion.

Are surnames chosen?

Surnames are not chosen; they are inherited from family.

Do given names have cultural significance?

Yes, they often carry cultural, religious, or familial significance.

Can given names reflect personal characteristics?

Sometimes, especially if named after an admired trait or person.

Do surnames have geographical significance?

Often, as they can indicate geographical origins or family roots.

Is the surname always the last name?

Typically, but the order can vary in different cultures.

Are surnames important for genealogical research?

Yes, they are crucial in tracing family history and lineage.

How common is it to have multiple given names?

It varies by culture; in some, multiple given names are common.

Are given names unique to individuals?

They are meant to be personal and can be unique or common.

Do surnames change across generations?

Generally, surnames remain constant within a family line.

Are given names legally binding?

Yes, they are part of a person's legal identity.

Can surnames be based on occupations?

Yes, many surnames originated from ancestral occupations.

Do surnames reflect social status?

Historically, some surnames could indicate social status.
About Author
Written by
Janet White
Janet White has been an esteemed writer and blogger for Difference Wiki. Holding a Master's degree in Science and Medical Journalism from the prestigious Boston University, she has consistently demonstrated her expertise and passion for her field. When she's not immersed in her work, Janet relishes her time exercising, delving into a good book, and cherishing moments with friends and family.
Edited by
Aimie Carlson
Aimie Carlson, holding a master's degree in English literature, is a fervent English language enthusiast. She lends her writing talents to Difference Wiki, a prominent website that specializes in comparisons, offering readers insightful analyses that both captivate and inform.

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