Last names can tell us a lot about history and the ties we have to our ancestors and cultural identity. While plenty are relatively obscure, most last names come from geographical, tribal, ancestral or personal characteristics. The most common last names in the world can also tell us about the types of societies where our ancestors once lived.
The origin of surnames: a brief history
The reasons why surnames exist and how they’re assigned from generation to generation are not as simple as they might seem. Variations occur between locations and cultures, and the way surnames are assigned have changed over time. To add to the complexity of surnames, not all countries have traditionally used surnames, and those that do generally adopted them around the late Middle Ages (1250-1500 AD).
For example, the Minangkabau people of West Sumatra don’t use surnames or familial last names and instead have clan names that pass on from mothers rather than fathers.
It wasn’t until the 15th century that European culture used last names as part of legal identities. In other countries such as Turkey, surnames weren’t adopted until a legal mandate in 1934.
In most English-speaking or Anglophone cultures, women traditionally changed their birth surname (also called a person’s maiden name) after marriage. The birth of suffragist and femininst movements are challenging that tradition, with many women now keeping their birth surnames or hyphenating both their birth and married names.
Surnames tend to fall under the following categories:
- Patronymics: These are names that indicate who your ancestors or parents are.
- Occupations: Surnames that indicate what job your ancestor had.
- Toponymics: Surnames that signify location of origin of your ancestors.
- Personal characteristics: These could include a person’s appearance or personality traits.
- Groups: Examples include original tribe, clan or patronage affiliations of your ancestors.
It’s also possible for a surname to combine all of the above. For instance, the surname Smith refers to being from a working class background and having descended from blacksmiths.
Surnames also possibly refer to the legacy of imperialism and colonialism. Those who were subjugated typically had last names given by conquerors or those who enslaved them. For example, African slaves didn’t have last names when they were brought to North America and were given their owners’ surnames.
Colonizing nations have an outsized share of last names. The most common surnames are Anglophone, Hispanophone (Spanish-speaking), Sinitic (from languages spoken in China) or Arabic.
Understanding the most common surnames around the world allows us a glimpse of history, an idea of how and where people traveled and who has had to assimilate with the dominant culture.
The 10 most common last names in the US
This family name is not only common in the US but also in Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and New Zealand. This surname originates from England and Scotland around the Middle English period (1,100-1,500). Smith refers to someone who works with metal, or if traced further back refers to the word smitan, meaning “to hit.”
This surname originally comes from the British Isles and is from an ancestor’s first name—aka the son of John.
A patronymic surname, Williams has its origins in medieval England and Wales. It essentially means son of William.
This is one of many last names based on someone’s appearance—either someone’s brown hair or eye color. In fact, it was fairly common to give names based on what someone looked like.
This patronymic family name means the son of John or Johan. It could have even stood for Johannes (male) or Johanna (female).
Garcia is also a popular surname in Spain and Ecuador in addition to other areas with large Spanish-speaking communities, such as California and Texas. Garcia comes from the Latin surname Garsea, meaning “bear.”
This is also a common last name in Germany and Switzerland (you may see it as Müller). Miller’s origins are in the occupation of the wheat milling trade.
Davis is a patronymic surname meaning son of David or son of Davie.
This patronymic surname means son of Rodrigo and also has origins in the Germanic word meaning “renown” and “power.” Other countries in which this name is popular include Costa Rica, Panama, Cuba and the Bahamas.
This patronymic last name means the son of Martin or belonging to Mars (the god of war).
The 10 most common last names in the world
Ali is the most common last name in Somalia, Eritrea, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Libya. Ali is 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.”
Wang is the most popular last name in China. Wang is an ancestral or patronymic surname defined as “king” in the Mandarin language. It’s used by more than 92 million people worldwide, and traces its origins back to the kingdoms that fell under the first Qin dynasty emperor. Many royal families changed their names as a result to protect themselves from being assassinated and to preserve their royal status.
This is the most popular surname in India and comes from the Sanskrit word for goddess. In the Hindi tradition, Devi is the mother goddess who can take the form of all other goddesses. Dewi is the Indonesian version of the name.
Ngyuen was one of the many surnames given to the Vietnamese people by China to keep tax records. There isn’t much information about the types of surnames Vietnamese people gave themselves before the Han Dynasty, when the Chinese occupied the country.
The word itself is from the Chinese Ruan, a type of instrument and the name of an ancient Chinese state. It became the most popular name in Vietnam, partly because the last name showed loyalty to the last ruling family in Vietnam, the Nguyen Dynasty.
Gonzalez means the son of Gonzalo, with origins in the Germanic name “battle” or “war.” Gonzalez is one of the most popular surnames in South America—more specifically, you can find this common last name throughout Argentina, Chile, Paraguay and Venezuela.
Deng is a popular surname in South Sudan. This surname references the Dinka rain and sky god Deng, believed to be an ancestor to several clans. It’s also a common last name in East Asia, though its meanings are different.
Most Russian surnames are typically patronymic and weren’t as widespread until the 19th century during the fall of serfdom. Surnames usually came from the original patriarch and tend to have gendered versions of the same name. The female version of Ivanov would be Ivanova.
Silva is the most popular last name in Portugal. Another version, da Silva, is the most popular in Brazil, which saw the arrival of the Portuguese around 1,500. The surname refers to areas called Silva, meaning “forest” or “woodland” in Latin.
Kim means “gold” and is popular most likely because of its use as a royal surname. Historically, people in Korean society wouldn’t have a surname unless they were aristocrats or royals. Once commoner adopted surnames, most would choose names used by aristocrats or royals. Kim is the most popular last name in North and South Korea, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
This surname is one of the most popular in Afghanistan, Chad, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, the Maldives, Trinidad and Tobago and Yemen. The surname comes from Muhammad, the Islamic prophet, and has many spelling variations, including Mahamat and Mohammadi.