Why Are Some Last Names So Common?


Growing up with a rarer (and deceptively simple to pronounce) surname, part of me envied kids who had more common last names – that didn’t get tripped up on during that first day of school’s attendance. But it has made me wonder – why some last names are more common than others. So, I asked Breanne.

Family names can develop from places, associations, occupations, or elsewhere. The most common surnames developed from professions – and because some professions were more common than others, those last names are today’s most common last names.

Ready to learn more about last names – and see which are some of the most common surnames? Keep reading – and let’s see.

Why Some Last Names are So Common

Last names (also called surnames or family names) have developed as a way of differentiating one Kim from another. After all, there were 4 of us in my 4th grade class.

Most last names came from a good-sized variety of things. Here’s a list of the most common places family names got thought up.

  • A profession (like Smith or Cooper)
  • From where your family lived (like Hill or Wood)
  • An adjective to describe something about an ancestor or their nickname that stuck
  • A relationship-based family name (usually patronymic) – like Johnson came from “John’s son”

Of those, the two most popular (or at least commonly used) surnames originate from the profession and relationship sources.

But why are there so many Smith’s? Well, let’s look back at history and how towns grew. Each town needed its own blacksmith – which meant that there were a lot of families who adopted Smith as their surname. Other professions weren’t as vital to a town’s survival – and so they weren’t as common. So those families, who adopted their less-common profession as their family name, aren’t as common.

Speaking of so many Smith’s – are we headed towards a world of fewer surnames? Here’s a really cool YouTube video that talks about the evolution and change of surnames over the centuries – and how it’s impacted common last names.

So if you’ve noticed that some names are more common, that’s a trend that will statistically continue. It’s kind of geeky but awesome to read more about – but let’s skip to the thing you’re actually wondering: what’s the most common last name in the world?

The Most Common Surname in the World Is…

In 2020, the most common surname in the world originates from the country with the largest overall population: China. But which last name is the most common? Well, that’s going to depend on which source material you’re quoting.

We’ve seen several sources that say that Wang is the most common Chinese last name. I’ve seen other sources that say Li and Zhang are right up there, if not more commonly used.

The reason why there’s some difference is that there isn’t a world census – or any world organization (or even part of the United Nations) that tracks this kind of data. The closest thing we could find is the UN’s Statistics Division, available at this link here. They track all sorts of other kinds of data – illness, population growth, health, and more. But not so much on the last names.

Even so, most sources agree that Wang is at least one of the top 3 most popular last names in China, if not the most common, so it’s pretty safe to say it’s dang common.

Top 10 Most Common Last Names (Family Names) in the World

Based on a lack of reliable, aggregate, or centralized data, there’s a good bit of wiggle room on the top-most common last names in the world. However, we scoured multiple sources and came up with our own general consensus as to the top 10 most common family names in the world.

By combining data from several sources, we were able to combine known factors (like countries with the largest populations) with solid estimates as to the most commonly-used surnames in each of those countries.

Here’s what we came up with: 10 of the most common last names in the world.

Common Last Name (Family Name)Country or Region of Origin
WangChina
DeviIndia
SmithUnited States
SariIndonesia
KhanPakistan
Da SilvaBrazil
IbrahimNigeria
AkterBangledesh
IvanovaRussia
HernandezMexico

Neither Breanne nor my last names made the list – sad, but expected. Our last names aren’t Smith – which is the most common American last name. But let’s take a deeper look into family names in America.

The Most Common Family Names in the United States of America

Thankfully, we’ve got more data to work with and spent a good amount of time browsing the most common family names in America. Thank you, US census and census workers for getting all of this wonderful data!

Now, we thought long and hard about making a table with a per-state most popular last name. However, there was so much overlap that it was kind of ridiculous. It would have been Smith most of the way across the whole table.

So, we first made a list of the top 10 overall most common last names in the United States of America. But we took it a step further – and added the common meaning and origin of the last name for an added coolness factor.

Common Last Name (Family Name)Country or Region of OriginMeaning
SmithEnglishoccupation: a metal worker
JohnsonEnglishrelationship: son of John
WilliamsEnglishrelationship: son of William
BrownEnglishdescription or adjective: describes a person’s coloring
JonesEnglsih, Welshsurname variation on the first name John
GarciaSpanish or Portugueserelationship: son of Garcia – which is the Latin form of Gerald
MillerEnglishoccupation: last name for a person who worked in a mill
DavisEnglish, Scottishrelationship: son of David
RodriguezSpanishrelationship: son of Rodrigo
MartinezSpanishrelationship: son of Martin
Source: https://www.census.gov/topics/population/genealogy/data/2010_surnames.html

If your last name didn’t make the list, but you’d still like to know how it originated (and what it means), then you should do that. Click this link to a site that explores family name meanings and origins.

It’s a pretty cool little site, though I’m unsure where they get their data. In any case, I did do a quick search of both Breanne and my own last names. Apparently we both married into surnames that most probably originated as descriptions of an individual.

Why Are There So Many Last Names?

Last names started off as a way to differentiate all those Johns (or all those Kim’s in the 4th grade). When last names first started, people got to pick their own last names – until they started getting assigned to them by the government. For example, if the Ellis Island immigration recorder couldn’t spell your last name, then your last name got changed whether you wanted it done or not.

But however your family’s last name got chosen, there started out with a whole lot more options. Due to statistics, child-bearing, and other factors that are really well detailed in this video, though, we’re losing a good number of last names.

So while we started with more options, we’re losing some amazing family names, which is kind of sad. But then again, Smith is a pretty cool last name. So maybe it wouldn’t be so bad for people to ask if you’re related to another Smith – famous or otherwise.

In any case, enjoy your last name – and learn its heritage. Because no matter what it is, it comes with some amazing stories.

Sources

  • Blake, Paul. “Family History – What’s In a Name? Your Link to the Past.” BBC, BBC, 26 Apr. 2011, www.bbc.co.uk/history/familyhistory/get_started/surnames_01.shtml.
  • Campbell, Mike. “Name of the Day.” The Meaning and History of Surnames – Behind the Name, surnames.behindthename.com/.
  • “Most Popular Last Name in Each US State.” Voice of America, www.voanews.com/usa/all-about-america/most-popular-last-name-each-us-state.
  • “Ten Countries with the Highest Population in the World.” Internet World Stats, www.internetworldstats.com/stats8.htm.
  • “The Most Common Last Name in Every Country.” NetCredit Blog, 18 Mar. 2020, www.netcredit.com/blog/most-common-name-country/.
  • “UNSD – Welcome to UNSD.” United Nations, United Nations, unstats.un.org/home/.
  • US Census Bureau. “Frequently Occurring Surnames from the 2010 Census.” The United States Census Bureau, 27 Dec. 2016, www.census.gov/topics/population/genealogy/data/2010_surnames.html.
  • US Census Bureau. “Most Popular Surnames in the United States.” The United States Census Bureau, 30 Dec. 2016, www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2016/cb16-tps154.html.
  • “Wang Remains the Most Common Surname in China: 2019 Report.” 404, news.cgtn.com/news/2020-01-21/Wang-remains-the-most-common-surname-in-China-2019-report-NqJ4JWbpfi/index.html.

Kimberly

I'm a ginger who loves reading, eating, being a nurse, doing genealogy, spending time with my family, and writing about it all. I believe humor is the best medicine, followed very closely by chocolate and tacos. To read more about me, click here.

Recent Content