An Economic Theory of Surnames

38 Pages Posted: 11 Jul 2019

See all articles by Alastair Berg

Alastair Berg

Camberwell Grammar School; RMIT University

Date Written: July 11, 2019


Names are one of the simplest means of distinguishing between two individuals. They can be considered near universal, and provide a robust means for indirect interaction. Heritable surnames serve both commercial and state based interests. They are a means to enforce primogeniture, and have historically been associated with the inheritance of property. They also act as a tool of the state to enforce actions against particular ethnic or familial groups, while ensuring obligations and entitlements are limited to those eligible. Within the scholarly tradition of the new institutional economics of history, along with the property rights literature exemplified respectively by Demsetz (1964, 1967) as well as Riker and Sened (1991), this paper examines the proliferation of heritable surnames after the Norman invasion of 1066, to determine their commercial and administrative origins. In the English example, surnames were adopted rapidly by major landholders, seeking to bolster their ability to pass on property to heirs in the face of often arbitrary actions by the king. The process was substantially slower for lower classes, with the calculation and enforcement of taxation obligations playing a major role in their use by these groups.

Keywords: institutional economics, surnames, property rights, Norman England

JEL Classification: K11, N43, O17, O43, P14

Suggested Citation

Berg, Alastair, An Economic Theory of Surnames (July 11, 2019). Available at SSRN: or

Alastair Berg (Contact Author)

Camberwell Grammar School ( email )

55 Mont Albert Rd
Melbourne, Victoria 3126
3126 (Fax)

RMIT University ( email )

124 La Trobe Street
Melbourne, 3000

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