Last names, or surnames, are the hereditary names common to all members of a family. The practice of classifying families by surname began in China in 2852 BCE for organizational reasons related to the census, and it spread around the world from there.
The origins of surnames generally fall within five categories: patronymics (names that refer to fathers or ancestors), occupations, toponymics (home region), personal characteristics, or clans/tribes. This mostly depends on the location — genealogy and census data shows that occupational surnames are more of a European or Western tradition, whereas patronymics dominate much of Asia and Latin America. In Africa, names referencing personal characteristics are the most commonplace.
While these are generalizations, it’s important to consider the many exceptions to these rules. For one, enslaved people often had to take the surnames of their subjugators, which is why many Black families in the U.S. have European surnames. Gender also plays into the surname game — in most English-speaking countries, it’s long been customary for a woman to change her last name to her husband’s when they get married. On the other hand, in Mexico, people are usually given two surnames: their father’s followed by their mother’s (although people are commonly addressed by their patronymic surname).
Finally, migration impacts names, particularly in the United States. Immigrants may alter their surname to assimilate into their new homelands; many people who migrated to America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries anglicized their names to blend in or because the original names were difficult for English-speaking Americans to pronounce. Sometimes, a name would change because a census or immigration worker misspelled it on important paperwork, and it stuck. All of these factors affect an accurate history of surnames among different cultures.
Now that we’ve discussed the basics of how last names evolved, let's take a look at some of the most popular surnames around the world.
“Smith” is one of the most prevalent names in the English-speaking countries of the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand (there are around 2.5 million Smiths in America alone). It’s an example of a name that developed to designate an occupation. It appeared in the Middle English period in England and Scotland, where it was used to delineate someone who worked with metal — blacksmiths, silversmiths, goldsmiths, and brownsmiths (those who work with copper and brass), for example. The etymology of this goes all the way back to the Old English smitan, meaning “to smite, to hit.”
More than 92 million people in China share the surname “Wang,” making it the most common surname in the entire world. It’s believed to have exploded in popularity around 250 BCE, when many royal families changed their name to Wang after the Zhou dynasty fell to the first Qin dynasty emperor. “Wang” means “king” in Mandarin, and it was used as a way to acknowledge royal lineage, yet hide their identities and avoid assassination.
The most popular last name in India is “Devi,” which comes from the Sanskrit word for “goddess,” or more specifically, the Hindu mother goddess who takes on the form of all the other goddesses. Even when it’s not an official surname, it’s sometimes used after the first name of a Hindu woman as a sign of respect. This last name is also common in Indonesia, but it’s spelled “Dewi.”
Russians were late to adopt last names, only integrating the practice with the fall of serfdom in the 19th century. In general, they lean toward patronymics to a more extreme degree than other cultures. The popular last name “Ivanov” means “son of Ivan,” but Russians will add additional patronymics to be more specific about genealogy. Consider the example “Boris Ivanov Petrov” — this would mean “Petrov” is the overarching family name, but Boris himself is the son of Ivan Petrov.
“Kim” is the most common surname in South Korea, with about 20% of the population sharing the name, as well as sections of the Eurasian nations of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The word “kim” means “gold,” and like “Wang” in China, it was originally a royal name. When surnames became more common among the working class, people adopted traditionally noble family names including “Kim,” “Lee,” and “Park.”
Today, nearly 40% of Vietnamese people share the “Nguyen” surname. Many Vietnamese families received their surnames from China while the nation was still under Chinese rule (roughly 111 BCE to 938 CE) in order to keep tax records, and “Nguyen” was a Vietnamese variation on the common Chinese name “Ruan.” As time wore on, many Vietnamese surnames were meant to show loyalty to whomever was in power at the time, and the last ruling family in Vietnam was the Nguyen dynasty.
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