The most common surname in the United States is Smith. Actually, the most common surname in just about every English-speaking country is Smith. As you may already suspect, the last name “Smith” refers to the blacksmith trade. Isn’t it kind of interesting that a few Smith ancestors from the Middle Ages were likely named for their occupational roles in society, only to eventually give rise to one of the most common last names in the world? There are 2.3 million Smiths in the United States alone, very few of whom are metal workers.
Last names were first used in China in 2852 BC on account of the census, and this concept eventually spread to the rest of the world. Truthfully, last names are fairly recent inventions in some parts of the world, where sometimes only nobles were once given family names, or other times there were simply different ways to refer to people.
Surnames present us with an interesting slice of anthropology because they contain all kinds of information about our ancestors and the kinds of societies they once lived in. Generally speaking, last names can be sorted into five categories based on what they were originally derived from: place names; occupations; personal characteristics; the names of parents or ancestors; and patronage (in other words, being named after a patron, not someone you were directly related to).
Here are the stories of some of the most common last names around the world and what they can tell us about our origins.
A Few Of The World’s Most Common Last Names
According to genealogy and census data compiled by NetCredit, occupational names appear to be a mostly European tradition, whereas ancestral names are a common trend throughout Asia, Africa, Europe, and Latin America. Similarly widespread are personal characteristic names, though the only continent where they appear to outnumber ancestral names is Africa.
Wang is a patronymic (ancestral) name that means “king” in Mandarin, and it’s shared by more than 92 million people in China, making it the most popular last name in the world. The reason it’s so populous today may have a lot to do with the fact that many royal families changed their name to Wang when their kingdoms fell under the first Qin dynasty emperor. This was both to preserve their status and protect themselves from assassination.
In the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, Smith prevails consistently. It originated in England and Scotland during the Middle English period as a name that referred to a person who works with metal, but its meaning can be traced even further back to the Old English smitan, which means “to smite, to hit.”
In India, this popular surname hails from the Sanskrit word for “goddess.” Devi is the mother goddess in the Hindu tradition who takes on the form of all the other goddesses. Though it’s only considered the most popular last name in India, its Indonesian variant is Dewi.
Last names didn’t really become widespread in Russia until the fall of serfdom in the 19th century. Though some are named after animals and a couple are occupational in nature, Russian last names are often patronymic, meaning they refer to the father’s name. Initially, the original patriarch was who determined the family name for generations to come, but Russians also use their own patronymic as a sort of precursor to the family name. So, for example, Svetlana Ivanova Petrova would mean Svetlana, daughter of Ivan from the Petrov family. Note that Russians gender the endings of their last names, so Ivanov/Ivanova are both versions of the same name.
Kim is the most common last name in both North and South Korea, as well as Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Roughly 20 percent of South Korea’s population (and 25 percent of North Korea) has this surname. The word itself means “gold,” but its popularity as a last name has a lot more to do with its origins as a royal name. For a long time, most people in Korean society didn’t have surnames unless they were royalty or aristocracy. When it became common for the working class to adopt surnames, many would adopt noble names like Kim, Lee, or Park, often by fudging their genealogy records.
Ali is the most common last name in Somalia, Eritrea, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Libya. It’s also very similar to Alaoui in Morocco, which is a French take on the same name. It’s a patronymic name that comes from Ali ibn Abi Talib, the cousin and son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad. The word itself means “high” or “lofty.”
García is the most popular surname in Spain and Ecuador, and is also among the most common last names in other Spanish-speaking areas (indeed, it’s the most common surname in California and Texas). It comes from the Latin garsea, which means “bear.”
This is the most common surname in Germany and Switzerland, and it’s an occupational name for the wheat milling trade. In America, Miller (in its Anglicized form) is one of the most common last names. The most popular surname in Ukraine — Melnik — means the same thing.
Silva is the most popular surname in Portugal, and da Silva takes the lead in Brazil. It belongs to the less popular category of names that derive from places or geographical features, referring to a place or places called Silva, which in Latin means “forest” or “woodland.”
Though it comes in a variety of possible spellings ranging from Mahamat to Mohammadi, this last name hails from the Islamic prophet Muhammad and is the most popular in Chad, Egypt, Yemen, Comoros, Djibouti, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Trinidad & Tobago and the Maldives.
Tesfaye is the most common last name in Ethiopia. It derives from the Amharic tesfa, which means “my hope.”
There’s not very much written information to suggest how Vietnamese people named themselves prior to the Chinese occupation under the Han Dynasty, but Nguyen began as one of many surnames given to Vietnamese families by China in an effort to keep tax information in order. Many of them were Vietnamese versions of Chinese words. Nguyen comes from the Chinese Ruan, which was the name of an ancient Chinese state and also a type of instrument or lute. Today, a very large percentage of Vietnamese people have this last name — somewhere between 30 to 40 percent. This is also a consequence of the fact that last names were assumed to show loyalty to whoever was in power at the time, and it just so happens to be the case that the last ruling family in Vietnam were the Nguyen Dynasty.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, this popular surname derives from a Bantu word that means “a person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time, tolerate it a second time, but never a third time.”
González is one of the most common last names in South America, ranking number one in Argentina, Chile, Paraguay and Venezuela. It essentially means “son of Gonzalo,” which itself comes from a Latin version of a Germanic name that meant “war” or “battle.”
In South Sudan, where the climate is very tropical, many are named after the Dinka rain and sky god Deng, who was believed to be an ancestor to certain clans. Though not related, Deng is also a common surname throughout East Asia.
Latin America, particularly Central America, contains several countries where Rodríguez is the most common surname: Costa Rica, Panama, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, the Bahamas, and Uruguay. It’s a patronymic name that means “son of Rodrigo” and is derived from a Germanic word that means “renown” and “power.”
This Zimbabwean name means “the heart.” This generally denotes a character trait of kindness and liveliness.
In Norway, Hansen is the most common name, and it’s a patronymic name meaning “son of Hans.” The -sen suffix is common throughout Scandinavian countries in general.