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After having pored through lots of literature, findings of which are shared below, there are quite a few candidates for the oldest surname title: COHEN, COURTENAY, HATT, KATZ, KING, O?BRIEN, O?CLEIRGH, PRIEST, SMITH.
You can read through all of the claims or simply scroll right down to read an analysis of the diff arguments.
From Jerusalem?s Traitor
Nothing more is known of Josephus. The Vita speaks of King Agrippa as being dead, and as it was believed for many years that the king had died about 100 CE, it used to be thought Josephus, too, must have lived into the second century. However, recent scholarship shows that Agrippa?s death took place earlier, and today the general opinion is that Josephus died in or about 95 CE. Nor is anything recorded of his children, although it is not impossible that he has descendants in the 21st century, unaware of their ancestry, among many inheritors of the name by which he would call himself today ? Cohen, the world?s oldest surname.
From The Sharp Spear and Flaming Sword of Political Justice Unsheathed and Fearlessly Wielded in Explaining Political Principles ? and Especially in Discussing the Great Irish Question of the Day. Addressed in the Form of Letters ? Second Edition
Lord Devon is of the family of Courtenay, said by Gibbon to bear the oldest surname in Europe.
According to ?The Teutonic Name-system, Applied to the Family Names of France, England and Germany? by Robert Ferguson ? January 1, 1864, the oldest surname on record is HATT.
(eBook available here: The Teutonic Name-system, Applied to the Family Names of France, England and Germany)
There is a document quoted from the MSS. Cott. by Mr. Turner, in his History of Anglo-Saxons, in which we find an Anglo-Saxon family with unquestionably a regular surname.
This document, which is numbered 1356 in Mr. Kemble?s collection, is without a date, but has every appearance of being earlier than the Conquest, and if so, HATT is the oldest surname we have on record.
According to Ripley?s Believe It Or Not!, the oldest surname in the world is Katz. They do not however offer any documentary evidence for the same.
(eBook available here: Ripley?s Believe It or Not!)
The oldest surname in the world is KATZ (the initials of the two words ? Kohen Tsedek). Every Katz is a priest, descending in an unbroken line from Aaron the brother of Moses, 1300 B.C.
According to Michael O?Hair, 1749?1813; soldier of the revolution, the oldest surname is O?Brien.
(Book available at Michael O?Hair, 1749?1813; soldier of the revolution)
Surnames first became fixed in the reign of Brian Boru (A.D. 1002?1014) and in obedience to an ordinance of that monarch. Previous to that time there was no general system of family names in Erinn (Ireland); but every man took the name either of his father or his grandfather for a surname. Brian himself, as the originator of the system, never adopted a hereditary surname. Nor did his sons. It was only in the time of his grandsons that the surname O?Brien first came into existence, and it was two centuries after the death of Brian before the process of fixed surnames was complete. The oldest surname is recorded in The Four Masters: in the year 916 A.D. When the ?O? was first affixed to a name, it was to designate ?grandson of Brien.? Generally speaking, ?Mac? surnames are of a later date than the ?O? surnames, but by the end of the 12th century surnames were universal among Irish families.
O?CLEIRGH / O?CLERY (now reduced to CLARK or CLARKE)
According to information that?s available on the Internet, several sites mention this:
An account by Friar Woulfe, an early authority on Irish surnames the earliest surname was O?Cleirgh ? O?Clery.
This is documented in the Irish Annals. The death of Tigherneach Ua Cleirigh in 916, County Galway is said to make this the earliest recorded surname in Europe ? and obviously ? completely out side the time scale of any English Government imposition
Original source of this information seems to be an email thread that can be traced back to 2005: Scotch-Irish-L Re;Irish Surnames. However, there doesn?t seem to be any record to support this.
According to ?Discovering Surnames? by J.W.Freeman, the oldest surname is Priest.
(Book available at Discovering Surnames)
At first used as a nickname denoting office, and later as a derogatory nickname, Priest is one of our oldest surnames; we have a record of an Aelfsige Preost who lived in Hertfordshire in AD 963.
SMITH or KING
According to Colonial Families of America, Volume 1 by Frances M. Smith F. Allaben genealogical Company, 1909, the oldest surname is possibly SMITH or KING.
(Book available at Colonial Families of America)
As a surname, it is one of the very oldest. By some historians it is said to be the oldest surname of all, with possibly the exception of the name of King. In old records the name appears as Smeeth, Smight, Smithes, Smithyes, and Smijthe. Smythe, Smithe, and Smith are present day forms.
So then which is the OLDEST surname?
Not Cohen. Not Katz. Not Priest. Why?Cohen is Hebrew for Priest. And Katz is a combination of Kohen and Tsedek. Essentially all these three ? Cohen, Katz, Priest ? are the same. They are derived from a profession/title and did not necessarily become proper surnames till much later.
Same goes with Smith & King.These are again titles and not necessarily family names/surnames.
O?Cleirgh is just the Internet spreading a wrong theory from an unverified source thanks to lack of other information.
Courtenay & Hatt fail the test too.The books that claim Courtenay and Hatt as being the oldest surnames ? both reference an evidence spoken of by another source. The evidence is non-scientific with the author in one case believing that the document ?appeared? old though no date has been ascertained for the same.
The argument for O?Brien being the oldest surname is the most sound. It is even supported by a historical document which one can go through here: Annals of the Four Masters
Image(s) used in the post:O?Brien: Reverse Engraved Innkeeper Name Plate