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Stories behind 9 most common surnames

What are the world’s most popular surnames? It’s a big question, to be honest. Naming conventions vary across the globe. Folks in some countries, such as Mongolia, don’t have surnames at all. In other places, like Hungary, the so-called “last name” comes first. Meanwhile, in Russia and elsewhere, the spelling and pronunciation of a name may depend on your gender. And sometimes a surname can change with each passing generation, as in Iceland.  

All of this complicates tracking the world’s most common surnames. The task is made even more challenging by the fact that if we were to simply stick to raw totals, this list would contain only names from China or the Indian subcontinent. (After all, those regions are home to one-third of the world’s population.)

Instead, we looked at the most popular surnames from different geographic regions: Asia, the Middle East, South America, and so on. (An approximation of the number of name-holders is provided by Forebears, a genealogy portal.) In no particular order, here’s the history behind some of the world’s most storied surnames.

Wang

The surname Wang used to be a handy way to show off your family’s political connections. It’s represented by the Chinese character for “King” or “Monarch.” The name’s popularity in China grew over millennia as various ruling clans and dynasties used it to highlight their pedigree and inheritance. Today, it doesn’t carry much political clout: Approximately 107 million people share the name Wang, making it the most common surname in the world.

Nguyen

About 2,100 years ago, China conquered present-day Vietnam. At the time, the Vietnamese didn’t have surnames, which was a problem for the Chinese, who wanted to keep track of their new vassals. So they started handing out surnames. One of those names was Ruan, which would evolve into Nguyen. “It seems likely that some mid-level Chinese bureaucrat, in seeking to figure out who actually lived in his newly conquered Vietnamese territory, simply decided that everyone living there would also be named Ruan—which became Nguyen,” writes Dan Nosowitz at Atlas Obscura. Today, up to 40 percent of Vietnam’s population bears the name.

Kim

From 57 B.C.E. up until the year 935, most of the Korean peninsula was called the kingdom of Silla. In the fourth century, The 17th ruler of Silla, Naemul, established a hereditary monarchy that would maintain control of the throne for an impressive five centuries. These people called themselves Kim. The name was fit for a King: The word means “gold.” (Today, approximately one in every five South Koreans are called Kim.)

Smith

Anglo-Saxon in origin, Smith harks back to the word smite, which means to “strike with a hammer. In medieval Europe, professional smiths (blacksmiths, goldsmiths, coppersmiths, and more) were among the most skilled and respected citizens in a community. Eventually, occupational names like “Tim the Smith” were shortened. Today, Smith is the most commonsurname in the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, and Australia.

Singh

Derived from the Sanskrit word “lion,” Singh is common among North Indian Hindus. And like Kaur, it’s also the name-of-choice for male Sikhs. In fact, the surnames Kaur and Singh are so widespread that immigration officials have complained that it’s too difficult to process paperwork from Sikhs. For 10 years, Canada addressed the problem by telling Sikhs to change their last names before applying to immigrate. According to the policy, “the names ‘Kaur’ and ‘Singh’ is not sufficient for the purpose of immigration to Canada.”  

Johnson

This surname owes its popularity to the New Testament. The given name John is one of the most popular in Christian world, and for good reason—The Bible is chock full of beloved Johns: John the Apostle, John the Baptist, and John the Evangelist to name a few. The spread of Christianity helped make John one of the most popular first names in the western world. When patronymic surnames became popular in the middle ages, Johnson would become an obvious frontrunner. (And it hasn’t hasn’t looked back. It’s now the second most common surname in the United States.)

Ahmed

As common a first name as it is a last name, Ahmed and its variants is easily one of the most well-known names on the planet. Extremely popular in Pakistan and east Africa—especially the small island nation of Comoros—the word means “To thanks or praise” or, more specifically, “thanks to God.” The name appears in the Koran, in which Jesus foretells that “an apostle … shall come after me, and whose name shall be Ahmed.”

Gonzalez

In the 5th century, the Visigoths settled in modern Spain and imported a distinct Germanic language, called Gothic. The name Gonzalez, meaning “son of Gonzalo,” roots back to the Gothic tongue. It’s believed the name Gonzalo may trace back to the old Gothic word for “battle” or “battlefield.” Others suggest it refers to the Gothic words for “war hall” or “castle.” (The Gonzalez family crest is an imposing castle tower.)

Rodriguez

For Spanish surnames, the suffix -ez is patronymic.That is, anytime you see a Spanish name ending in -ez, the name means “son of.” The surname Rodriguez, for example, merely means “Son of Rodrigo.” It derives from the old Germanic name Hrodric, which loosely means “powerful ruler.” Back in the day, anybody in the Rodriguez clan could claim that he or she was related to a political bigwig.

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