It is reasonable to expect that since the dawn of intelligent life, humans have had a need for some way to distinguish between each other. Thus the name was born. I can only speak for two cultures here: England and America. Although the examples here are from English and American history, the principles apply to many.

When villages and hamlets were isolated by lack of modern transport, there was not a huge need for second names. If there happened to be two people with the same first name in one settlement, they were often identified by their profession and the place they lived — perhaps something like "John the Miller who lives by the River on the Hill".

Clumsy though this system was, it was adequate for the needs at that time. Nevertheless, the trend was towards shorter and snappier names like the ones in use today. So our imaginary friend John from the previous paragraph might have been called John Miller or John Underhill in later generations.

But the adoption of fixed surnames didn't happen overnight. Two events were instrumental in paving the way for uniformity in naming: the introduction of a poll tax in 1379, in which the names of all people over 16 were collected, and, thirty-four years later, the Statue of Additions. In the latter, the name, occupation and place of residence of all English citizens was collected.

But where do modern surnames come from? The answer is surprisingly simple: with very few irregularrities they either come from occupations (Butcher), places (Lincoln), nicknames (Armstrong) or a paternal relationship (Johnson). In some cases, though, origins are not evident at first, often because the words used within them have become obsolete, or simply because they have been mashed around to such a large extent as the years have gone by.

Some now-obsolete medieval names include Fuller (for the ancient equivalent of a dry cleaner's) and Fletcher (someone who made a living constructing bows and arrows). In other cases names employ a regional expression mostly forgotten in the modern age, such as Akerman, a provincial form of ploughman.

In fact, since spellings at that time were so loose — not to mention that the language itself was going through a huge metamorphose — words which look similar may in fact stem from one similar root. In Mother Tongue, Bill Bryson quotes Hill, Hall, and Hull as perhaps having come from one form.

In names featuring place-names, prepositions such as 'of' gradually died out, so George of Lancaster became, more simply, George Lancaster. As Bill Bryson notes, some prepositions in names carry on to this day, as in Underwood and Noakes (from 'atten Oakes', i.e. by the oak trees), though this is comparatively rare.

Foreign words add more variety to the mix. Morgan is Welsh for white-haired, while Russel comes from the Medieval French roussell, meaning red-haired. This brings us neatly on to the plurality of new names brought to America by immigrants.

In some cases, new names were slapped onto immigrants into America with little thought for the recipients. More often, though, the immigrants themselves modified their existing names to make them more palatable to American speech. This could sometimes be a fairly dramatic modification, such as the Greek Pappadimitracoupolos to the more pronouncable Pappas, or the Scandinavian Sjögren to Seagren. Other times, such as in the case of Lindqvist to Lindquist, the change was far more minor. Sometimes immigrants took a chance to jettison offensive names such as Kolokotronis (literally 'bullet in the ass') in favour of something more ordinary.

Interestingly, the stress of certain names was also apt to change upon the bearer's entry into the U.S. Names that had previously been pronounced with a less obvious emphasis were spoken with a pronounced emphasis on the second syllable — as with Bernard, traditionally pronounced bernud, which transmogrified into ber-nard. Italians' names also tended to be pronounced differently, as in Esposito, which was moulded into Esposito.

Inspiration and many examples drawn from “Mother Tongue” by Bill Bryson, published in the U.K. by Penguin. ISBN: 0-140-14305-X.