Last Names and Their Meanings
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Last names are often passed down in families, a link that can be traced back through family trees for generations.
But did you know that in addition to being a key component of your tree, surnames can give you clues to your ancestors’ heritage and possibly insights into their lives?
The last names in your family history can sometimes give you an idea about where your ancestors were from, what they did for a living, and even what they may have looked like, perceived characteristics they may have had.
Surname Meanings and Origins
The most common last names in the U.S., according to 2010 Census Bureau data, are largely of European origin.
And while the use of last names is quite common today, once upon a time in Europe most of the population did not use surnames.
In England, for instance, last names have been noted by various historians as not being widely used before the 11th century, specifically before the Norman conquest of 1066.
In fact, historians have also noted, it wasn’t until the latter part of the 16th century that the use of hereditary surnames—surnames that were passed down in families—became more established.
Originally, surnames in England and other parts of Europe were created based on a handful of naming patterns. These patterns can be thought of as surname types.
Here are a few common types of surnames.
Patronymic surnames are last names that are based on a father’s name—or the name of one of his male ancestors. They are common in many parts of the world and are used in Scandinavian, Slavic, Germanic, Iberian, and Celtic languages, to name a few.
Some examples of patronymic surnames that are relatively common today in the U.S. include:
Andersen: meaning “son of Anders,” from the personal name Anders, a vernacular form of Andreas. Its origins are Danish and Norwegian.
Davis: a patronymic surname originating in Wales. It means “son of David.” A common variant, particularly in the UK, is Davies.
Johnson: from the personal name John, literally meaning “son of John.” The origins are English and Scottish.
Martinez: a last name from the personal name Martin. It means “son of Martin,” and is Spanish in origin.
McDonald: a surname from the personal name Domhnall. It’s an Anglicized form of the Gaelic “Mac Dhomhnuill” and is Scottish in origin.
Powell: an Anglicized form of the Welsh ap Hywel, which means “son of Hywel.” The personal name Hywel means “eminent” in Welsh.
Rodriguez: a patronymic last name from the personal name Rodrigo. The “ez” indicates “son of,” so its meaning is “son of Rodrigo.” Its origins are Spanish and Portuguese.
Wilson: from the personal name Will, a very common medieval short form of William. Its origins are English, Scottish, and northern Irish.
Occupational last names identified people by their job or position in society.
Most frequently, occupational surnames reflected the person’s own occupation. For instance, someone whose last name was Miller was someone who operated and/or owned a mill.
But in the case of some English surnames, the bearer could have taken on a last name that reflected their employer’s occupation. For instance, the surname Vickers could be an occupational name for the servant of a vicar, or parish priest.
A few examples of occupational surnames, from among the most common surnames in the U.S. include:
Becker: an occupational name for a baker of bread or bricks and tiles. It’s derived from the German backen, which means “to bake.” It is a German, Dutch, Danish, and Jewish (Ashkenazic) last name.
Berger: among other origins, a French occupational name for a shepherd, from the Old French word for shepherd, bergier.
Marin: among other origins, an occupational surname for a sailor, from the French marin. It is also a Spanish location-based (habitational) name, in particular from Pontevedra in Galicia, as well as a Serbian, Croatian, and Romanian surname from the personal name Marija or Mara.
Smith: a name for a craftsman who worked with metal, or smith. Metalworking was one of the earliest occupations which required specialized skills, and its importance ensured the English name and its equivalents (the German Schmidt, Spanish Herrero, Portuguese Ferreiro, French Lefevre, etc.) were among the most common occupational surnames in Europe.
Wagner: a name for a carter or cartwright, from the German wagen, which means “cart” or “wagon.” It is of German and Jewish origins and is well-established not only in German-speaking countries and the U.S. but also in Scandinavia, the Netherlands, and eastern Europe.
Weber: derived from the Middle High German word wëber, a derivative of the word weben, meaning “to weave.” It was an occupational name for a weaver.
Descriptive surnames were based on the bearer’s unique personal characteristics and often originated from nicknames.
Most commonly, descriptive surnames were based on physical characteristics, such as hair color and physical size.
But they could also include moral or personality-based characteristics, such as bravery, wisdom, and vanity.
Here are a few well-known surnames in the U.S. that are descriptive last names:
Bravo: a surname developed from the nickname bravo, meaning “fierce,” “courageous” or “violent.” Its origins are Spanish and Portuguese.
Hertz: among other origins, a descriptive surname derived from the Middle High German herze or “heart.” It was a nickname for a stout-hearted or kind-hearted individual.
Klein: from the German and Dutch klein, meaning “small” or the Yiddish kleyn. It was a nickname for someone of small stature. It was also often used to distinguish a junior male, usually a son, in names such as Kleinpeter or Kleinhans. The surname is common and widespread throughout central and eastern Europe.
Leblanc: a descriptive surname from the French blanc, meaning “white.” It was used to denote someone who had white or blond hair or who was pale.
Russo: in addition to stemming from the personal name Russo, this descriptive Italian surname was a nickname for someone with red hair, a red beard, or a ruddy complexion. Russo is the southern variant of another Italian surname, Rosso.
Strong: an English surname that was given as a nickname to a man with noted physical strength. But it was also perhaps applied ironically on occasion, to someone who was relatively weak.
Wise: a descriptive surname for a wise or learned person. In some cases this surname was also a name used for someone suspected of being acquainted with the occult arts. Its English origins are from the Middle English wise and the Old English wis.
Toponymic (Geographical/Place) Surnames
Yet another type of last names is toponymic, based on where a person was born, lived, worked, or owned land.
These surnames could reference specific areas of human settlement such as a city, village, town, or estate. Surnames based on a named location are known as habitational, or regional.
Or they could reference features of the landscape including natural features like a mountain, lake, field, or marsh—or even a man-made features such as a bridge or well. Toponymic surnames based on a landscape feature are known as topographical, or topographic.
Here are some examples of relatively well-known or common U.S. last names that are geographical in origin (topographical or habitational):
Berger: among other origins, a topographic surname applied to someone who lived in the mountains or hills. Its origins are German, Dutch, Swedish, and Ashkenazic Jewish—though as Jewish surname, it is mainly ornamental. It is found throughout central and eastern Europe, either as a surname of German origin or as a German translation of a topographic name with similar meaning. An example would be the Slovenian Gricar, which originates from the Slovenian word gric, meaning “low hill.”
Bush: a topographic name for someone who lived by a bushy area or a thicket. It stems from the Middle English bush(e).
Costa: a topographic surname for someone who lived on a slope or river bank, or on the coast. It is originally from the Latin word costa, meaning “rib,” “side,” or “flank.” It can also be a habitational surname in cases where the bearer came from any of a number of places named Costa. It is largely a Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian surname.
Fields: a surname from the Middle English feldes, the plural or possessive of feld, meaning “open country.” This English topographic surname is also found as a translation of equivalent last names in other languages, in particular the French equivalents Deschamps and Duchamp.
Dupont: a French topographic surname derived from the French word pont, meaning “bridge.” Du pont directly translates to “from the bridge,” and could indicate the original bearer of the surname lived near a prominent bridge.
Navarro: a habitational name which denoted someone hailing from Navarre (known as Navarra in Spanish and Naffaroa in Basque), a province in the north of Spain which is now divided between Spain and France. Navarre was a Basque kingdom in the Middle Ages. The place name is derived from the Basque word naba or nava, which means “plains near the mountains.” It is a Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and Sephardic Jewish last name of Basque origin.
Vega: a toponymic Spanish surname which was both habitational and topographical. The habitational surname indicated the bearer was from any of the numerous places called Vega or La Vega. The topographical name is from the Spanish word vega, which refers to a meadow, valley, or fertile plain. Thus its meaning is “one who lives on a plain” or “dweller in the meadow.”
Common Last Names
The most common last names in the U.S., according to the U.S Census Bureau, are largely of European origin. By far the most common last name is Smith.
There’s more to the surname Smith than might originally meet the eye. Smiths in medieval times were valued not only for their skills in making domestic tools such as horseshoes and plowshares but above all for their skills in forging weapons and armor. Over time, the importance of metalworking ensured that the last name Smith and its other European language equivalents (the Dutch Smets or De Smid, French Lefebvre, Spanish Herrera, Serbo-Croatian Kovac, etc.) were among the most widespread of all occupational surnames in Europe.
In the U.S., the surname Smith has been absorbed by assimilation and translation. For example, to more fully assimilate, some immigrants with a last name that meant “smith” in their native language, such as Lefebvre, Kovac, or Smets, could have Americanized their name to Smith.
Smith has consistently remained the most common surname in the U.S. over the years.
In 2000 and 2010, the most recent years for which there is readily available census data, the same five surnames were the most common, in this order: Smith, Johnson, Williams, Brown, and Jones.
One trend that has emerged beyond the top five surnames is a rise in both the number of Hispanic surnames among the most common U.S. surnames and the individual rankings of the most common Hispanic surnames.
In 2000, the traditionally Hispanic surname Garcia was among the top ten most common last names, ranking as number eight. In 2010, it jumped up to number six. Also moving up in the rankings between 2000 and 2010 was the surname Martinez, which replaced the surname Wilson as the tenth most common in the U.S.
Overall there were three Hispanic surnames in the top 20 most common U.S. last names in 2000: Garcia (#8), Martinez (#11), and Hernandez (#15). By 2010, five Hispanic surnames were among the top 20 most common last names: Garcia (#6), Martinez (#10), Hernandez (#11), Lopez (#12) and Gonzalez (#13).
While the majority of the 1,000 most common surnames in the U.S. are of European origin there are a few surnames with origins in other parts of the world in the 150 most common of those surnames. These include:
Chen: a common Chinese surname, from the state of Chen, in present-day Henan Province. The first king of the Zhou dynasty granted Gui Man—a descendant of the legendary Emperor Shun—the region of Chen, along with one of his daughters in marriage. Gui Man was posthumously named Chen Hugong, and his descendants, along with many people from Chen, came to adopt the surname Chen. It was the 150th-most common surname in the U.S. in 2010.
Kim: the most common Korean surname, found in virtually every part of Korea. The two largest Kim clans—the Kim family of Gimhae (Kimhae) and the Kim family of Gyeongju (Kyongju)—are descended from semi-mythological characters who lived two thousand years ago: Kim Suro and Kim Alji (Gim Al-ji), respectively. The story of Kim Alji is that in 65 AD, King Talhae heard a sound, which led to the discovery of a golden box or egg, with a white crowing rooster nearby. Inside was an infant, Alji. The king bestowed on him the name Gim (金, meaning gold) Al-ji (meaning gold in native Korean). As of 2010, Kim was the 80th-most common last name in the U.S.
Lee/Li: a surname of multiple origins including English, Norwegian, and Chinese, to name a few. The English last name Lee is the topographic name for someone who lived near a meadow or patch of arable land or a habitational name from any of the many places named Lee. It is the Americanized spelling of the Norwegian surname Li or Lie. And it is a variant of the common Chinese surname Li. According to tradition, the surname Li descends from the emperor Zhuanxu, the grandson of the mythical Yellow Emperor. A descendant of Zhuanxu, Gao Yao, served as Dali (大理) or Minister of Justice, sometime around the 23rd century B.C. And his descendants adopted part of his title, Li ( 理), as their surname. According to folklore, at the end of the Shang dynasty, the minister Li Zhi was persecuted by King Zhou. His wife and son, Li Lizhen, fled and survived by eating plums. In recognition of this, Li Lizhen changed his surname to 李, a character that means “plum” and is pronounced the same as Li (理).
Nguyen: the 38th-most common surname in the U.S. in 2010. This Vietnamese surname was the family name of a major royal dynasty. It is the most common Vietnamese last name in the U.S.
Patel: originally meaning “village headman” or “village chief.” This Indian surname was first given to those in positions of leadership and later either retained as successive generations integrated into communities of landowners or was assigned to the owner or tenant of a piece of land. Historically, it was particularly common in the state of Gujarat. In the U.S., it is the most common surname for people of Indian heritage. It was the 95th most common surname overall in the U.S. in 2010.
Tran: most commonly a Vietnamese last name, related to the Chinese surname Chen. One of its origins in Europe was as a nickname from the old Norse “trani” meaning “crane,” for someone with perhaps a resemblance to that bird. It was the 132nd most common surname in the U.S. in 2010.
Behind the Name
There’s more about your family story that surnames in your family tree can reveal beyond in which country that surname was common, what the name may have meant, or how it may have originated generations ago.
Here are some things to keep in mind when delving into the fuller stories behind the surnames in your family tree.
Before coming to the U.S., some of your European ancestors may have moved around Europe first—and their surname could be an important clue. Ancestryâ customer Julie Martini, for example, identified as German American despite her Italian last name. A trip to the small German village where her great-grandfather was born and a connection she made with long-lost family there—discovered thanks to their shared last name—revealed that her family had come to Germany from Italy hundreds of years before. They’d lived for generations in Germany before some migrated to America.
Once they got to the U.S., your ancestors may have changed their names for a number of reasons. While the idea that immigrants’ names were changed by immigration officials at ports like Ellis Island is largely a myth, some of your ancestors may have changed their names for other reasons. One example is ancestors with the surname Smith. They may have chosen to Americanize a last name like the French Lefevre, which translates to “smith,” to better embrace their new American identity. Or they may have been a family member with the German surname Schmidt who changed their surname to the English variant Smith to avoid discrimination in the wake of World War I or World War II, in which the U.S. fought against Germany.
Not every European surname common in the U.S. was passed down for generations directly from European ancestors. There are a number of reasons people in the past may have needed or wanted a fresh start. One larger scale historical example is African Americans who had been enslaved, who changed their name after emancipation. Although the new surnames they chose did not necessarily have a long personal family history at the time, the name choices often had personal meaning and have since become part of the legacy and family story for their descendants.
Find the Stories Behind the Surnames in Your Family
As you explore your family tree, you may find certain last names appearing more often, due to factors such as larger branches of your family or the popularity of a given name in the part of the world where your family has roots. Or you might find one of the rare surnames on the verge of extinction.
But regardless of how rare or common the last names in your family may be, with every name on your tree there is a story, a life, and a set of experiences that leads to your unique family story.
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