But others can be tricky to work out.
That’s where the Forebears website can be useful.
It carries the meanings of 11 million surnames and can also show their distribution, either on a regional, country or global level.
According to forebears.co.uk the majority of last names are ‘patronymic’, meaning they are derived from the name of a male ancestor. Examples include Andrew MacDonald = Andrew, son of Donald.
Then there’s occupational surnames, such as Smith short for blacksmith. It is still the most common last name in the UK.
Topographical surnames can be derived from features of a landscape – eg Hill, Ford – or from place names, like London, Aston, Eaton, Molyneux.
Descriptive surnames are less common and are linked to an ancestor’s characteristics – eg Young, White and Good. However, they are not always as flattering.
The final category is matronymic surnames, which come from the name of a female ancestor, usually the mother, and are uncommon in most parts of the world.