The Search for the World's Oldest Surname

Written by: Nimish Adani

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Time to read min

A surname or family name is a name added to a given name. In many cases, a surname is a family name and many dictionaries define ‘surname’ as a synonym of ‘family name’. In the western hemisphere, it is commonly synonymous with last name because it is usually placed at the end of a person's given name.


In most Spanish-speaking and Portuguese-speaking countries, two or more last names (or surnames) may be used. In China, Hungary, Japan, Korea, Madagascar, Taiwan, Vietnam, and parts of India, the family name is placed before a person’s given name.


Nevertheless, the style of having both a family name (surname) and a given name (forename) is far from universal. In many countries, it is common for ordinary people to have only one name or mononym.


It needs to be mentioned here that the concept of a "surname" is a relatively recent historical development, evolving from a medieval naming practice called a ‘byname’. Based on an individual's occupation or area of residence, a byname would be used in situations where more than one person had the same name.


Clearly, there’s no gainsaying the fact that it is a valued one in most parts of the world. All the more reason, we thought it might be interesting to investigate the question of which and where is the oldest surname in the world.


In this article we try to unearth the world's oldest surname based on historical evidence. The quotes and evidence provided below are excerpts from various historical literature and is our attempt to discover the origins of the world's oldest surname in history.

The Search for the Oldest Surname

The search for the oldest surname in the world took us to different corners of the globe and threw up more than a handful of candidates – COHEN, COURTENAY, HATT, KATZ, KING, O'BRIEN, O'CLEIRGH, PRIEST, SMITH – each of whose claim we shall now consider closely.

COHEN

Cohen is the world's oldest surname as per the book Jerusalem's Traitor: Josephus, Masada, and the Fall of Judea by Desmond Seward.

"Nothing more is known of Josephus. The Vita speaks of King Agrippa as being dead, and as it was believed for many years that the king had died about 100 CE, it used to be thought Josephus, too, must have lived into the second century. However, recent scholarship shows that Agrippa's death took place earlier, and today the general opinion is that Josephus died in or about 95 CE. Nor is anything recorded of his children, although it is not impossible that he has descendants in the 21st century, unaware of their ancestry, among many inheritors of the name by which he would call himself today – Cohen, the world's oldest surname."


COURTENAY

As per the 1868 book The Sharp Spear and Flaming Sword of Political Justice... Second Edition, by John Scott, Courtenay is the oldest surname in Europe.

"Lord Devon is of the family of Courtenay, said by Gibbon to bear the oldest surname in Europe."

 

HATT

According to The Teutonic Name-system, Applied to the Family Names of France, England and Germany (1864) by Robert Ferguson, the oldest surname on record is HATT. (eBook available here)

"There is a document quoted from the MSS. Cott. by Mr. Turner, in his History of Anglo-Saxons, in which we find an Anglo-Saxon family with unquestionably a regular surname. This document, which is numbered 1356 in Mr. Kemble's collection, is without a date, but has every appearance of being earlier than the Conquest, and if so, HATT is the oldest surname we have on record."

 

KATZ

According to Ripley's Believe It Or Not!, the oldest surname in the world is Katz. They do not however offer any documentary evidence for the same. (eBook available here: Ripley's Believe It or Not!)

"The oldest surname in the world is KATZ (the initials of the two words - Kohen Tsedek). Every Katz is a priest, descending in an unbroken line from Aaron the brother of Moses, 1300 B.C."

 

O'BRIEN

According to Michael O'Hair, 1749-1813; soldier of the revolution, the oldest surname is O'Brien. (Book available here)

"Surnames first became fixed in the reign of Brian Boru (A.D. 1002-1014) and in obedience to an ordinance of that monarch. Previous to that time there was no general system of family names in Erinn (Ireland); but every man took the name either of his father or his grandfather for a surname. Brian himself, as the originator of the system, never adopted a hereditary surname and nor did his sons. It was only in the time of his grandsons that the surname O'Brien first came into existence, and it was two centuries after the death of Brian before the process of fixed surnames was complete. The oldest surname is recorded in The Four Masters: in the year 916 A.D. When the "O" was first affixed to a name, it was to designate "grandson of Brien." Generally speaking, "Mac" surnames are of a later date than the "O" surnames, but by the end of the 12th century surnames were universal among Irish families."

 

O'CLEIRGH / O'CLERY (now reduced to CLARK or CLARKE)

According to information that's available on the Internet, several sites mention this:

"An account by Friar Woulfe, an early authority on Irish surnames the earliest surname was O'Cleirgh - O'Clery. This is documented in the Irish Annals. The death of Tigherneach Ua Cleirigh in 916, County Galway is said to make this the earliest recorded surname in Europe - and obviously - completely outside the time scale of any English Government imposition"

Original source of this information seems to be an email thread that can be traced back to 2005: Scotch-Irish-L Re; Irish Surnames. However, there doesn't seem to be any record to support this.


PRIEST

According to Discovering Surnames by J.W.Freeman, the oldest surname is Priest. (Book available here)

"At first used as a nickname denoting office, and later as a derogatory nickname, Priest is one of our oldest surnames; we have a record of an Aelfsige Preost who lived in Hertfordshire in AD 963."


SMITH or KING

According to Colonial Families of America, Volume 1 by Frances M. Smith F. Allaben genealogical Company, 1909, the oldest surname is possibly SMITH or KING. (Book available here)

"As a surname, it is one of the very oldest. By some historians it is said to be the oldest surname of all, with possibly the exception of the name of King. In old records the name appears as Smeeth, Smight, Smithes, Smithyes, and Smijthe. Smythe, Smithe, and Smith are present day forms."

 

Which, then, is the OLDEST surname in the world?

Not Cohen. Not Katz. Not Priest, Not Smith, Not King, Not O’Cleirgh, Not Courtenay, Not Hall. Here’s why.

Cohen is Hebrew for Priest. And Katz is a combination of Kohen and Tsedek. Essentially all three – Cohen, Katz, and Priest – are the same. They are derived from a profession/title and did not necessarily become proper surnames till much later. Smith & King, too, are titles and not necessarily family names/surnames.


O'Cleirgh is just the Internet spreading a wrong theory from an unverified source thanks to lack of other information. Courtenay & Hatt fail the test too. In fact, both books which claim Courtenay and Hatt as being the oldest surnames reference evidence spoken of by another source. The evidence is non-scientific, what with the author in one case believing that the document 'appeared' old though no date has been ascertained for the same.

And the title goes to…

The argument for O'Brien being the oldest surname is the most sound. It is even supported by a historical document which one can go through here: Annals of the Four Masters.