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Surnames are the strongest historical tie we have to our ancestors.
Though there might be plenty of mystery surrounding less popular last names, they tend to traditionally come from one of the following origins: geography (e.g., Hamilton), geographical features (Brooks), occupation (Weaver), personal characteristic (Short), estate name (Windsor), ancestry (Watson), or patronage (Hickman).
But some surnames pop up more than others. Here is the history and meaning behind some of the most common last names in the world.
In the United States, Australia, Great Britain, and many other English-speaking countries, the most popular last name is Smith.
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In the 2010 US census, 2,376,206 Americans were identified with the last name of Smith. The University of the West of England in Bristol classifies the ever-popular Smith as “an English and Scottish occupational name from the Middle English period (1150 – 1470) for someone who works with metal, such as a blacksmith.”
Behind the Name goes even further back, noting that Smith is derived from the Old English “smitan,” meaning to smite or hit.
The most popular last name in the world is Wang, meaning “king.”
About 92.8 million people in mainland China have the royal last name of Wang. There is significant debate over who truly descends from the original Wang clans of the Shang and Zhou dynasties, because many royal families took the name Wang when their kingdoms fell under the Qin dynasty.
According to Shanghai Daily, rebranding everyone as Wang was a strategic play to hide their identities and avoid assassination, but hold on to royal tradition.
Jones and Johnson, two of the top American surnames, are just variations of John.
Becoming more popular in the 18th and 19th centuries in the United Kingdom, Jones is an English and Welsh variation of John. Genealogy Bank goes into further detail, pointing out that anything ending in “-son,” is a patronymic, meaning “son of John.”
John name comes from Latin, which traces back to Greek, which goes further back to the Hebrew Bible, meaning “Yahweh has favoured.” The name’s European popularity dates to the Christian era when “St. John the Baptist, St. John the Evangelist and nearly one thousand other Christian saints” were relevant, according to Genealogy Bank. Johnson is the second most common surname in the US, after Smith.
The Chinese Li (or the Korean version, Lee), is one of the most popular names in China and the most popular surname in Hawaii.
The Chinese character means “plum” or “plum tree,” but the name can also mean “minister.” The venerated king Gao Yao, minister to Emperor Shun, took Li as a second name in a time when it was common practice to have multiple family names before your individual name, according to Wee Kek Koon’s in-depth report on Chinese surnames.
Li became popular after Gao Yao’s reign when, during the Tang Dynasty, leaders would gift the name Li to their most trusted allies and fiercest warriors. This surname-gifting practice trickled down to result in nearly 40% of the world’s Chinese people having the surnames Wang, Li, Zhang, Liu, Chen, Yang, Huang, Zhao, Zhou, and Wu.
The last name Brown likely really does come from the color.
Brown really might’ve been as simple as naming someone after their hair or eye color. In fact, names based on appearances are historically common.
Professor Richard Coates, the leader of the team of researchers whose findings on surnames were published in the “Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland,” has a funny theory about this: “There are … names where the origin describes the original bearer such as Short … though Short may, in fact, be an ironic ‘nickname’ surname for a tall person.” So, yes, people were making fun of your ancestors thousands and thousands of years ago.
García, whose origins might mean “bear” or “young,” is the most popular name in Spain.
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This Spanish and Portuguese name is found in medieval records in the Latin form Garsea, meaning bear.
According to the Instituto Nacional de Estadistica, it’s the most popular surname in the country of Spain and is popular in Spanish-speaking areas; it’s the most common name in California and Texas. In 2010, it was the sixth most popular name in the US, up from 18th in 1990, according to Vice.
Vice reported that “25% of Hispanics share the top 26 surnames of the most common 1,000 surnames. In comparison, the most common 26 surnames cover less than 1% of the white population.”
Patel, the most common surname among Indians in America and Great Britain, means “village leader.”
Patel comes from the Gujarati language and is a Hindu and Parsi name meaning “village headmen,” or “landowner” from the Sanskrit “pạṭtakila” for “tenant of royal land.”
Patel is not the most common surname in India, meaning that this specific sect of agriculturists was driven from India in droves to find different lives in English-speaking countries.
Müller and Miller refer to the trade of milling hard wheats into a flour.
- Flickr/Martin LaBar
Kimberly Powell, the author of ”The Everything Guide to Online Genealogy,” wrote in a post for ThoughtCo that “the Müller last name is a German occupational surname for ‘miller,’ from the Middle High German mülnære or müller.” Müller is the most common surname in Germany, Switzerland, and parts of France. The English version, Miller, is one of the top 10 surnames in America.
About 30 to 40% of Vietnamese people have the last name Nguyen.
- The Flag Shop
Dan Nosowitz wrote Atlas Obscura that while Americans can trace their last names to their ancestors’ trades, country of origin, and even town of origin, last names are relatively new in Vietnamese culture.
“Before [the Han Dynasty’s occupation of Vietnam], nobody really knows how the Vietnamese handled names, due to lack of written records. In fact even the name ‘Vietnam’ comes from the Chinese; ‘viet’ is the Vietnamese version of the word the Chinese used to describe the people southeast of Yunnan Province.”
Family names in Vietnam came first and were patronymic in nature until Chinese imperialists began bestowing last names on them to keep track of who they were taxing. The “Nguyen” designation probably comes the Chinese “Ruan” imperialist.
The most common surname in Russia is Smirnov, meaning “quiet” or “still.”
Alexey Mikheev for Russia Beyond translated the Russian “smirny” to “meek.” Although it’s the most popular Russian surname, Smirnovs make up only 1.8% of Russia’s population.
Mikheev wrote that in Russia, surnames only appeared in the upper classes in the 16th century and after serfdom was terminated in the 19th century and were patronymic, ending in “-ov,” “-ev,” and “-in” to determine the father.
Russians also gender their last names to be masculine or feminine, so women would be given the surname Smirnova. The name sounds a lot like the vodka brand Smirnoff because the founder’s son disguised his name to escape the Bolsheviks.
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