The history of names is so ancient that no one know quite where it began. Oral and written history both profess people having names. Earlier names seem to have some sort of meaning, usually descriptive. In contrast, today's names are usually given based upon their popularity or pleasing sounds.
Early in prehistory, descriptive names were used continuously. Eventually, a collection of names were formed that identified that particular culture. Today, the meanings of many names are not known, due to the aging history of a name. As time goes on, languages change, and words that formed the original name are often unrecognizable.
The rise in Christianity transformed the history of names. Christians were encouraged to name their children after saints and martyrs of the church. Because of this influence, we now see names such as Mary, Martha, Joseph, James, Mark, Paul, and John prominent among many cultures. These names were spread by early missionaries throughout Europe.
By the Middle Ages, Christian names were seen predominantly. Each culture had its collection of names, which were a combination of native and early Christian names. However, the naming pools continued to evolve. Modern names often bear little resemblance of their predecessors. Surprisingly, the early Christian names changed very little in comparison.
Bynames are additional identifiers used to distinguish two people with the same name. From these bynames, surnames were developed. Surnames are a comparatively recent development. These usually started out as being specific to a person and then became inherited from father to son. This was a common practice between the twelfth and sixteenth century. This practice was adopted first by the aristocracy and later on by the peasants. Bynames came in various types. The patronymic referred to the father, a matronymic referred to the mother, a locative or toponymic indicated where a person was from,and an epithet described the person in some way ( such as their occupation, office, or status).
Patronymics are common in almost all European cultures. For example, a man named Ivan whose father's name is Nikolay would be know as Ivan Nikolayevich or Ivan, son of Nikolay. In Gaelic, the prefix Mac is used to form a patronym. An example would be MacKenzie - son of Kenneth. The use of the matronymic is much less common.
Common occupational names included Baker, Shepherd, Carpenter, and Wright.
The Romans adopted surnames as far back as 2,000 years ago, while other areas of the world were slower to begin using surnames. However, by the Middle Ages, they were used regularly, first by the nobility and then by the gentry. Following the fall of the Roman Empire, Ireland was one of the first countries to adopt surnames. These Irish surnames are found as early as the tenth century.
Today's names are influenced by celebrities, common popular names, and biblical names.