Common Last Names and Their Origin Stories

In most countries, people’s names consist of both their first and last names. The first name is usually the given name, while the last name expresses the family name, although the order is reversed in some countries and cultures. Unlike the first name, however, your last name can potentially tell you a story about your ancestors.

In fact, your last name could explain the occupation, physical characteristics, or even the geographical features of your forefathers’ hometown. For instance, some English names like Baker, Brewer, and Clarke allude to—bakers, brewers, and clerks. Other surnames like Wood and Hill give us a little bit of information about the location of where the ancestors used to live.

Some of the world’s most-used surnames are so famous that you might be familiar with them, even if they came from a different part of the planet.

Johnson, one of the most frequent surnames in America

Johnson is a family name that originated from the UK. Johnson means “the son of John.” Going by the same rule, there are also other variations in Europe, including Carlson (the son of Carl) and Hansen (the son of Hans), which came from the Scandinavian subregion.

This type of surname is often called a baptismal name, as the child would be bestowed with these last names when they were baptized at a church. It’s not until the 18th century that the practice of giving children baptismal names was getting more common. Baptismal names are given as the need to differentiate people was becoming more necessary thanks to the community’s growing population.

As for the name “John” itself, it can be traced back to its use in the Tanakh or Hebrew Bible. The root word is “Yôḥānān” or in its longer form “Yəhôḥānān,” meaning “YHWH (Yahweh) has been gracious.” “John” as a name got more popular in Europe as religious figures like “John the Baptist” and “John the Evangelist” became more prominent.

In the US, Johnson is the second most common surname, according to the 2010 census. The 5th name on the list, Jones, is simply a variation of John. As for the most common one, it’s Smith, which we’ll discuss next.

Smith, once among the most well-respected family names in the middle ages

Smith is simply another example of a name that is occupational, or comes from one’s ancestor’s profession in the past. In this case, if your last name is Smith, it’s virtually guaranteed that one of your fore-parents worked as a blacksmith, making weapons as well as selling tools.

The Smith family had an exceptional place in society during the medieval period. Among their works, blacksmiths had a special responsibility to create swords, spears, or any other form of battle equipment for their own kingdom’s knights. Due to this privilege, Smith was considered a prideful family.

As a side note, Smith is derived from the word ‘smite,’ a synonym for ‘hit,’ ‘smack,’ or ‘beat.’

Kim, the most common Korean family name

Kim is arguably one of the most common names in Korea. Not just in its homeland, Kim is also quite popular in the US, ranked at 77, according to the same census mentioned before. This is the case as the Korean-American citizens make up a considerable part of the diverse American population.

You might have also heard the name “Kim” from other sources. Fans of K-Pop are likely more familiar with the name. Well, we can expect that some of your music favorite ‘idols’ bear the surname Kim too.

The current Supreme Leader of North Korea and his predecessors, Kim Jong-un, Kim Jong-il, and Kim Il-sung, are other examples. Three of them are blood-related and come from the ruling Kim family.

Kim was the name of the family that ruled over Silla, a kingdom of the Korean Peninsula that unified most of the Korean land in 668. This is why Kim become a common name. The word ‘Kim’ can also be transliterated as ‘geum’ for “gold.”

Nguyen, a surname used by about 35% of Vietnamese

Nguyen is another foreign name that is also quite widespread in America, sitting at 38th for the most prevalent last name in the country. Even if Nguyen is used by most Vietnamese, surprisingly, the concept of surname or family name is a relatively new thing for the Vietnamese culture, or at least it’s not something that is considered important by them.

The tradition of family names appeared only during China’s occupation of Vietnam. Basically, Nguyen is a mispronunciation of Ruan, a common Chinese surname. Back then, Chinese imperialists used their own surname—one of which is “Ruan”—to identify people under their own surveillance. This makes it easier to keep a tax record of them.

Somewhere along the way, Nguyen became the most widespread name in the country.

What’s In a Name?

It’s amazing how names are not only an integral part of someone’s identity but can also illuminate the history of one’s heritage. How about you? Do you know the story of your last name?

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