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I've seen many names like "Jason Fruit", "Rebecca Burger", "Sandra Bullock", "George Box", "George Bush", "Taylor Moon", "Gregory House", "Jessica Null" etc. Why don't they use a family name or their father's name as a surname? Do American parents deliberately name their kids like this or is it the children who change their surname when they become adults?
Aren't children with such names prone to being bullied in school (and perhaps later in life too)?
People in this page seem to be careful with names, but there's no explanation about why the kind of surnames that I mentioned, are chosen. This answer mentions something about the syllables, but I couldn't understand it.

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  • Misguided though it is, this question is a good frame challenge :) Aug 23, 2020 at 14:23
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    This is not a good question for this site - it is entirely off topic.
    – Rory Alsop
    Aug 25, 2020 at 8:56
  • @Rory: I agree. I'm clicking on "delete" now (didn't work). If you could delete the question, kindly do.
    – Nav
    Aug 27, 2020 at 7:28
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    Hi Nav - well, because there is an answer with upvotes, we cannot delete (it would remove rep from them) - but don't worry about it. Closed is fine :-)
    – Rory Alsop
    Aug 27, 2020 at 8:01

2 Answers 2

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In most cases, the very simple answer is “They don’t”.

A surname in a western context is not just the term for a name in a specific position of a list (the by no means universal pattern of first / middle / last name), a surname in modern times is a family name, inherited typically via the patrilineal route. It’s not the parents’ choice, but there are laws in place so that there’s rarely a choice - except for example in cases where the parents have different surnames and can chose one of theirs. The concept of family names and of individual surnames was known in Roman times already, then somewhat lost in the Middle Ages. Informally, distinguishing between lots of Toms, Johns and Henris in a village happend usually via a personal qualifier, which could be a physical property, a profession or a place of origin or similar. At some point, rising bureaucracy “cemented” these into family names, so that after a few generations John Black could be blonde and blue-eyed, James Smith a lawyer and Richard Attenborough was born in Cambridge, not Nottinghamshire. But the terms are often enough “normal English words”, as you already noted. And some names have shifted a bit, originated in other European languages, kept an old-fashioned meaning, or are terms a modern English speaker is probably unfamiliar with, which yes, can be a thing kids get laughed at for. (But just one of many.)

The fact that some parents (and hence websites, making a profit via advertising) are very keen on debating given names is based to a significant degree on the fact that usually the surname / last name / family name is fixed, so that the creative energy some parents seem to possess goes into picking out given names. And some combinations of given and family names are possibly a bit, ummmm, clumsy. I know someone who’s parents named him Blue Berry (not verbally translated, but you get the idea). In some cases, people with nowadays “strange” or “offensive” surnames chose to change theirs at some point in their lives, some pick the name of their spouse when they get married, others go the legal route. And some proudly carry theirs as family heritage, even though it’s “Womanbeater”1 (again translated from German and someone I know.)

———-

1 No, the name doesn’t indicate someone prone to violence, but a lumberjack working for or employed at a monastery of nuns.

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In the United States of America, the surname of a child is typically1 the surname of one or both of the child's parents (and, is by definition the family name). Different states have different rules about this, but nearly always this is the case. As such, parents don't typically "choose" a surname for their child, unless the parents have different surnames in which case they have a choice from two.

As to why Americans often have common words as surnames, there are two main reasons for this.

  • In European countries, in the first half of the last millenium surnames often came from trades, places, or fathers' names, which were then passed down through the centuries father to child. For example, "Smith" was what the town smith was called, "Baker" was the town baker, etc.; or "Johnson" was "son of John", "Robertson" was "son of Robert"; or, "York" meant from York (a city, and a duchy, in England). These medieval last names were then passed down.
  • For African Americans, when the slaves were emancipated (in the 1860s), the former slaves did not have last names. Many took the surnames of their former owners, but for others they chose other names - "Washington" is a very common one, for example, after George Washington - or other words entirely ("Freeman" was also quite common).

That's not an exhaustive list, nor am I an expert in this area; consider asking on History for more detail.

I would note that in your list, "Burger" for example is not from an English word - it is from a German word meaning "citizen". You'll find lots of examples of common-word last names in Western European countries if you look around.

In fact, this really originated in Europe; most Western European cultures handle surnames the same way (most commonly patrilineal naming, meaning they inherit their father's last name, though that is not entirely consistent) and have similar origins and in fact similar names - "Schmidt" is a common last name in Germany for example, and is the same as Smith; "Becker" originates from "Bäcker" (Baker), etc. French names have similar origins, but seem to more commonly be based on first names (see here).

1I say typically, as it is by far the most common, but as the USA is comprised of people from many different cultures, it is certainly not universal - many Chinese-Americans, for example, will follow the traditional FamilyName PersonalName pattern; and a small number of people do indeed choose a totally new surname for their children. Nonetheless, I answer for the common case.

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  • Thank you. Names came from trade names? Sandra Bullock's parents were an opera singer and an army-man whose dad was a rocket scientist. Perhaps it's a name carried on from much earlier in the family tree. Tom Cruise? Unlikely they manufactured cruise liners. Jessica Null? There seems to be some other aspect to naming, which we haven't considered. Though I do remember names like "Engineerwala" among Parsis.
    – Nav
    Aug 22, 2020 at 6:30
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    @Nav Names came from trade names in the 1000s-1400s. Then the names were passed down over the centuries, generally keeping the father's surname.
    – Joe
    Aug 22, 2020 at 6:36
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    @Nav, a question about the history of surnames and why some are so strange might be better suited for History. I know that when formal surnames were mandated (in the early 1800's in the Netherlands), not everybody was very creative or took it seriously. Aug 22, 2020 at 9:06
  • Definitely would be a better fit on History to get more of the details, @BartvanIngenSchenau, but I think it's okay here - at least as it was initially considered, which is "why do parents [do x]". Turns out they don't really do that - but it's okay to ask a question that the answer is that way.
    – Joe
    Aug 22, 2020 at 15:28
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    @Joe, it was the follow up comments of the OP that made me think the question was not really about parenting after all. If it was the initial question, I'd have commented on that. Aug 22, 2020 at 17:50

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