Justin of Fire of Learning explains the origins and meanings behind common last names (or surnames) in the Western world.
While our first names are of course more personal our last names also called surnames or family names perhaps carry more weight they connect us not only to our immediate family but to our ancestors and the lives they lived through understanding what our last names mean we can better understand the story of our own existence and place ourselves within the larger picture of human history.
These names were derived from certain trades (Smith, Fisher, Barbour), from fathers’ names (Erikson, Johnson, Stevenson), which included patronyms that note the relationship thereof (son-döttir, ben-bat, Mac, Mc), descendants from Irish royalty (O’Brian, O’Neill), locations (Washington, Newton, Kent), natural geographic features (Brooks, Hill, Rivers), structures (Castle, Berg), or physical characteristics (Russell, Reid, Roth, Flynn, Hardy).
In summary, these are the four main origins of Western last names – place names, occupations, relationships, especially to the Father or the clan, and nicknames or monikers. Typically their origins live very much in the past to the point at which the modern bearers may have no connection to the namesake. I nearly forgot to mention, that we still do have the creation of new last names when people decide to legally change their last name such as Mr. Ten Million and Mr. Optimus Prime
via Boing Boing