Common Last Names

Last names are the strongest historical ties we have to our ancestors. For example, the most popular last names in the U.S., are a country of immigrants, typically of English and Spanish origin.

Common last names are evolving in regions where migration is very high. We can look at lists of common last names or popular surnames and compare data over time to see changing trends. Interestingly, the Hispanic surnames Rodriguez and Garcia entered the top ten for the first time in U.S. history.

A Brief History of Last Names

First of all, what is a last name? That’s not as simple as this question looks like. Not all countries have a tradition of even using last names, and most of those who do–looking at you, Europe–only adopted them in the late Middle Ages or afterwards. 

The tradition of how a last name is assigned, and how it is passed from generation to generation, is complex. Not only does it vary between cultures, but how we get our last names has also shifted over time because of social changes.

For instance, in Anglophone (English-speaking) cultures, it is traditional for a woman to change her birth last name (the so-called “maiden name”) to her husband’s last name once she marries. This tradition decreased somewhere after the feminist and suffragist movements and continues to decline significantly. 

In contrast, the people from West Sumatra, Minangkabau don’t have familial last names. Instead, they have clan names which pass matrilineally. In other words, clan names are given to the children from their mothers, not their fathers. 

Also, remember that in many cultures and countries, last names are a relatively recent phenomenon. For example, the last name used as part of your legal identification in European culture only dates back to about the 15th century. Some countries have adopted last names even more recently. Turkey, for instance, only adopted the usage of last names in 1934–by legal mandate!  

Societies that use last names usually use them to help identify a person’s current community, ancestry, or other culturally identifying characteristic. According to anthropologists and linguists, last names tend to fall broadly into these five categories:

  • Patronymics (names that signify who your ancestors were or father was )
  • Occupations (names that signify what job your ancestor did)
  • Toponymics (names that signify where your ancestors lived)
  • Names that signify personal characteristics, such as personality or appearance traits
  • Names that denote what tribe, clan, or patronage you or your ancestors belong to

A last name can also be a combination of these categories (for instance Smith refers to the occupation of blacksmithing, the patronymic lineage of being descended from blacksmiths, and the notion of being from the working class). 

For some people, their last names point to a legacy of imperialism and colonialism. Typically, Subjugated peoples had the last name tradition of their conquerors imposed upon them. African slaves, for instance, came to the Americas without last names and were often given the last names of their owners. These last names may be part of a person’s lineage or identity today. 

Here are the stories of some of the most common last names worldwide and what they can tell us about our origins.

Most Common Last Names in the World

1. Wang

Wang is a patronymic (ancestral) surname which means “king” in Mandarin. Currently, it is the most common surname in Mainland China, as well as the most common surname in the world, with more than 107 million people holding this worldwide. It is listed 8th in the famous Hundred Family Surnames. The reason it’s so common 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 protect themselves from assassination and to preserve their status. The Wang surname is also used in some non-Chinese-speaking countries, including Vietnam, Korea, and Japan. 

Wang 王 is the Chinese word for “king”. Laurent Sagart and William Baxter reconstructed the Old Chinese form of Wáng as *ɢʷaŋ and the Middle Chinese as hjwang.

The modern bearers of the last name Wang come from many different backgrounds, but there are four principal origins of the modern surname: Gui, Zi, Ji, and the last name adopted from ethnic groups outside the Han Chinese.

2. Nguyễn

Nguyễn is the most common Vietnamese family name. By some estimates, approximately 40 per cent of Vietnamese have this surname. The prevalence of Nguyễn as a family name in Vietnam extends outside of the country where many Vietnamese have emigrated. It is the 7th most common family surname in Australia, and the 54th most common in France. In the United States, it is the 57th most common family surname according to the 2000 Census, as well as the most common exclusively Asian surname. 

Nguyễn came from the Chinese word ruan (a string instrument that is plucked).

In Vietnam, the family name Nguyễn was connected to the royal dynasties. It is said that during the Tran Dynasty (1225–1400), many Ly family members of the prior dynasty changed their surname to Nguyễn to avoid persecution.

The Nguyễn family had a place of prominence as early as the 16th century, but they would rule during the last of the dynasties. The Nguyen Dynasty lasted from 1802 until 1945 when Emperor Bao Dai abdicated.

Approximately 40 percent of the Vietnamese population have the surname, Nguyễn. There is no doubt that it is the most common Vietnamese family name. This can be used as a first name as well as a last name. Also, in Vietnamese tradition, a surname must be used before an individual’s given name.

3. Kim

Kim is the most common surname in both South and North Korea, as well as Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Roughly 20 percent of South Korea’s population and 25 percent of North Korea holds this surname. The word Kim means “gold,” but its popularity as a surname 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 any last names unless they were aristocracy or royalty. When it became necessary for the working class to adopt surnames, many would adopt noble names like Kim, Park or Lee, often by fudging their genealogy records.

The surname Kim has its roots in two separate royal families of Korea, the Gaya Confederacy and the Silla dynasty. The Gaya confederacy, which existed from 42 AD to 562 AD, had a royal family with the last name Kim. The Silla dynasty, which spanned from 57 BC to 935 AD, observed the rule of the Kim family for 700 years. The word ‘Kim’ itself means ‘gold,’ which was fitting for a royal family that ruled over such a prosperous kingdom.  

When both these kingdoms united, the merger led to Kim becoming one of Korea’s well-known family surnames. This transformation happened during the Joseon dynasty, which ruled from 1392 to 1910 and Japan’s subsequent occupation of the Korean peninsula.

4. Smith

Smith is an English surname originating in England. It is the most popular surname in the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia, the second most popular surname in Canada, and the fifth most popular surname in Ireland. It is particularly prevalent among those of Irish and English descent but is also a common surname among African Americans, which can be attributed to black slaves adopting the name after the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation and during the era of slavery. At least 3 million people in the United States share the surname Smith, and more than 500,000 people hold it in the United Kingdom.

It dates back to the era of Anglo-Saxon and derives from the occupation of ‘smith’, from the Old English ‘Smid’, which means to strike or to hit, and was used to describe a person who worked with metal (a blacksmith for example). 

The surname would have been given to those who work with metal, in the era before surnames were inherited. Due to the occupational nature of this surname, there are many diverse branches of the Smith family, and no common line of origin to be traced back to.

5. Singh

Singh is a Sanskrit word that means “lion” in various South Asian and Southeast Asian communities. Traditionally, it is used by the Hindu Kshatriya community; it was later mandated in the late 17th century by Guru Gobind Singh for all male Sikhs as well, in part to emulate Rajput naming conventions and a rejection of caste-based prejudice. As a surname or a last name, it is now found throughout the world across religious groups and communities, becoming more of a caste-neutral, generic, decorative name. 

6. Johnson

The Johnson surname is primarily English and Scottish and has a patronymic origin. It’s the 154th most common name in the world and the second most common name in the United States. The surname Johnson is given to ‘son of John/Johannes’, which means that variants are prevalent everywhere that these surnames are found (e.g. as ‘Janssen/Jonsson,’ in Scandinavia), particularly in the Christian world.

The spread of Christianity helped make the name John, one of the most common first names in the Western world. When patronymic surnames became popular in the Middle Ages, Johnson became an obvious common surname. (And it hasn’t hasn’t looked back. Now it’s the second most common last name in the United States.)

7. Ahmed

Ahmed is most common in the Middle East and some other parts of the world. The word is derived from the Arabic term, “hāmida,” which means “praised” or “one who gives praises”. This surname is mostly associated with different figures in Islamic history.

This surname is most closely associated with Prophet Muhammad’s most beloved friend, Abu Bakr Ahmed bin Abi Quhafah, or as he is commonly known, Abu Bakr al-Siddiq. Historically, this surname has been a great choice for those wanting to honour the first Caliph of Islam.

The meaning of the name Ahmed is “the most praised.” It symbolises the strong qualities of loyalty and faithfulness and can also be associated with respect, strength and courage. The surname Ahmed is associated with peace and it also conveys a sense of leadership and dedication to service. It is a common surname in most parts of the world and is particularly popular in Islamic countries.

Ahmed is also known for its richness in its origins and is perfect for honouring a person’s heritage. It is seen as a heroic name and also symbolises a commitment to faith, an admirable quality. It is typically pronounced “ah-med,” and is easy to spell and memorise.

8. Gonzalez

González is a popular surname, the second most common (2.16% of the population) in Spain, as well as one of the five most common surnames in Paraguay, Argentina, Mexico, Chile, and Venezuela, and the most common last names in the entire Spanish-speaking world. As of 2017, it is the 13th most common surname in the U.S. 

González’s origins trace back to a Visigothic name combining the words gunþo (guntho) (battle or war) and alf (elf); the Latinized form was Gundisalv. As the Spanish language developed, the surname transformed into Gonzálo and its surname derivative González. Some believe that it means “war hall”, as evidenced by the castle in a field of blood on its family crest and the Visigothic cultural origins of the nation of Spain. González is also taken to mean “son of Gonzalo”, “noble warrior”, “soldier” or “castle guard”. 

9. Rodriguez

The name Rodriguez is of Spanish origin. It is patronymic (taken from the paternal line) and means “son of Rodrigo.” The “ez or es” added to the root signifies “descendant of.” Rodrigo is the Spanish form of Roderick, which means “famous power” or “powerful ruler,” which comes from the Germanic elements hrod, which means “fame” and ric, which means “power.” Rodriguez is the 60th most common surname in the world. This surname is most commonly found in the region of Islas Canarias, followed by Asturias, Galicia, Extremadura, and Castilla León. 

10. Li or Lee 

Li or Lee is a widespread surname in China, with about 7.9 per cent of the Chinese population possessing this family name. This surname is the most common for the Hakka Chinese. A Korean surname often romanized as Lee, is the second most common Korean surname, after Kim. Both the Vietnamese family name Lý and the Korean family name Lee were derived from the same Chinese character as the Chinese surname. 

11. García

García is the most common surname in Ecuador and Spain and is also among the most common surnames in other Spanish-speaking areas (indeed, it’s the most common surname in Texas and California). The Word García comes from the Latin word garsea, which means “bear.”

12. Martin

With over 235,000 people in France holding the last name Martin, it is the most common French surname. A shorter version of the Latin name Martinus, it is also a very popular first name in many languages.

13. González 

González was the name of a family that originated in Spain. In Spain, it is the second most common surname (only after García) with 2.08% of the population bearing the surname. It’s also very popular in Latin America, being the most common one in countries like Argentina, Chile, Venezuela and Paraguay, thus making it the most popular surname in the Spanish-speaking world. It is ranked as the 23rd most common surname in the United States.

14. Rossi

Rossi is the most common surname in Italy. Due to the diaspora, it is also very common in some other countries such as Argentina, Australia, Austria, Brazil, Canada, Chile, France, Mexico, Peru, the US and Uruguay.

15. Mohamed

Though the surname comes in a variety of possible spellings ranging from Mahamat to Mohammadi, this surname hails from the Islamic prophet Muhammad and is the most popular in Yemen, Chad, Egypt, Iraq, Comoros, Djibouti, Iran, Trinidad & Tobago, Afghanistan, and the Maldives.

16. Hernández 

Hernández is a Portuguese and Spanish last name that came into common use around the 15th century. Originally a patronymic, it means son of Hernán. This surname occurs mostly in Chile, Mexico, Cuba, the USA, and Spain.

17. Fernandez

Fernandez means “son of Fernando”, it is a common Spanish surname. It is the 4th most common surname in Argentina, the 8th most common surname in Spain, the 10th most common surname in Paraguay and the 13th most common surname in Mexico. Fernandes is the Portuguese version of this surname.

18. Müller 

Müller is a German word which means “miller” (as a profession). It is the most common surname in Germany and Switzerland, the 5th most common surname in Austria and the 1st most common surname in the French départements Bas-Rhin and Moselle (with the spelling Müller or Muller). Other forms are “Miller” (mainly Austria, Southern Germany, and Switzerland) and “Möller” (Central and Northern Germany and The Netherlands). Various family crests exist, and many incorporate milling iconography, such as watermills or windmill wheels.

19. Silva 

With over 10% of Brazilians holding the last name Silva, it is the most common name in Brazil. Derived from the Latin word silva meaning ‘forest’ or ‘woodland’, it is also popular in Portugal and regions of the former Portuguese Empire in America, Africa and Asia (including India and Sri Lanka).

20. Anderson

The Anderson surname is very common in both Scandinavia and Britain, with similar roots (it is 5th most common in Norway and Denmark and the most common surname in Sweden). It is a patronymic surname, describing someone who is the descendant or son of a person named Andrew. This surname has huge popularity in Scotland, due to the Patron Saint of Scotland, making the given name Andrew far more popular.