The Geography of European Surnames
To follow up on the previous GeoCurrents post on the geography of first names, this post will examine that of surnames. The first map on the left shows the most common European surnames by country. Some interesting patterns emerge here. The most popular type of surname derives from a patronymic, that is father’s name augmented by a suffix, typically one meaning ‘son of’ (in some cases parallel suffixes meaning ‘daughter of’ or feminine forms of the masculine suffix, exist as well). Iceland still uses patronymics in place of surnames. Thus, the current president of Iceland, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, is a son of Grím, while his predecessor Vigdís Finnbogadóttir is a daughter of Finnbogi Rútur Þorvaldsson. Note that Icelandic patronymics are not replaced upon marriage: for example, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson’s first wife, Guðrún Katrín Þorbergsdóttir, was a daughter of Þorberg. Historically, the practice of using patronymics was common everywhere in the Old Norse realm. As a result, the most common surnames in all Scandinavian countries today—Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Faroe Islands—derive from patronymics.
The Vikings also brought the practice of using patronymics to the areas they settled in the British Isles. As can be seen from the map on the left, patronymic-derived surnames are common in the former Danelaw, although they are no longer the most common surnames in England. Deriving surnames from patronymics was also widespread elsewhere in Europe, including the Celtic-speaking and Slavic-speaking areas. Today, the most common surnames in Northern Ireland, Wales, and the Republic of Ireland are the patronymic-derived Wilson, Jones, and Murphy (respectively). In Slavic-speaking lands, the most popular surnames are patronymic-derived in Belarus, Bulgaria, and Serbia. An earlier patronymic is also the source of the most common surname in Belgium, Peeters.
The second most common origin for surnames stems from occupations, such as ‘miller’, from which the top surnames in both Ukraine (Melnik) and Germany and Switzerland (Müller) derive. Another important occupational name is ‘Smith’, which gave rise to the most common surname in England and, according to the first map, in Scotland. A more detailed map of surnames in the UK shows that Smith is indeed the most common family name almost everywhere in England, but in Scotland it holds that position only in the Lowland areas. Since most of Scotland’s population indeed lives in the Lowlands (especially in cities such as Glasgow and Edinburgh), Smith rises to the first place. But in the Highlands, Scottish clan names, such as Fraser, Ross, Mackay, Campbell, McDonald, MacLeod, are prevalent. Although the clan structure was mostly destroyed by the depopulation of the Highlands in the late eighteenth century, some of it survives to this day. For example, Godfrey Macdonald of Macdonald is still the High Chief of Clan Donald on the Isle of Skye; his wife Claire McDonald is a renowned hotelier, chef, and food writer.
In several English counties surnames other than Smith are most common; those include other occupation-derived surnames such as Taylor and Cutler, as well as an occasional patronymic-derived surname, such as Robinson. In Wales and Cornwall, patronymic-based surnames such as Jones, Davies, Williams, and Lewis occupy the top position. Interestingly, the area where patronymic-based surnames are most frequent extends well beyond the areas where Celtic languages, Welsh and Cornish, have been spoken within the past several hundred years.
Besides patronymics and occupations, toponyms provide another important source of surnames. For example, the most common surname in Portugal, Almeida, derives from a town name. This tendency is common in a variety of European languages, though in no other country is a toponymic-based surname the most common one. Type of locations can also give rise to surnames; the most frequent family name in Austria, Gruber, comes from a word meaning ‘pit or mine’. Ethnic designations have also generated surnames, as in the most common family names in Slovakia and Croatia, Horváth and Horvat, both meaning ‘Croatian’. Surnames derived from Catholic saints can be common as well, such as Martin, the most frequent surname in France. Widespread surnames meaning either ‘priest’ or ‘son of priest’ include Popescu in Romania, Popović in Montenegro and Papadopoulos in Greece. Of similar origin are also the most frequent surnames in the heavily Muslim countries of Bosnia and Kosovo, Hodžić and Hoxha, which derive from a Persian word meaning ‘Master, Lord’. Possibly related in meaning is the most frequent surname in Hungary, Nagy, which means ‘great’. Other meanings of common surnames include ‘junior’, such as De Jong in the Netherlands and the Basque-derived García in Spain; ‘new’, as in Nowak in Poland, Novák in the Czech Republic, Novak in Slovenia; ‘red’, possibly a reference to red hair, as in Rossi in Italy; and ‘quiet, meek’, as in Smirnov in Russia. I have not been able to find the etymology of the most frequent surnames in Finland, Malta, Macedonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia—I would be happy to hear from our readers if they know.
As for the United States, the typographic map created by the National Geographic Magazine and reproduced on the left shows the 25 most common surnames in each US state, totaling 181 unique names. The size of the letters corresponds to the number of people with that surname and the color of the font represents the origin of the surname. The text associated with the map explains:
“What’s in a Surname? A new view of the United States based on the distribution of common last names shows centuries of history and echoes some of America’s great immigration sagas. To compile this data, geographers at University College London used phone directories to find the predominant surnames in each state. Software then identified the probable provenances of the 181 names that emerged.”
As noted in the accompanying text, most common surnames in the US come from Great Britain. Those from England are shown in light blue and include the English champion surname Smith, as well as Miller, Johnson, and Brown. Welsh surnames are shown in medium blue; they include the most popular surname in Wales, Jones, as well as Thomas and Lewis. Another name depicted as Welsh in origin, Williams, is actually more common in Cornwall than in Wales. Surnames of Scottish origin are shown in the darkest shade of blue and include Campbell and Wilson. The commonality of these surnames throughout the United States reflects “the long head start the British had over many other settlers”, as the accompanying text puts it. Notably there is no significant difference between the South and the rest of the country in terms of the frequency of British surnames. This is partially explained by the fact that slaves often took their owners’ names: according to the National Geographic Magazine “about one in five Americans now named Smith are African American”. Moreover, many later immigrants, particularly Jewish immigrants from Poland and the Russian Empire, anglicized their names to ease assimilation. For example, the surname of San Francisco Symphony Musical Director Michael Tilson Thomas is an abbreviation of his grandparents’ name, Thomashefsky. Famous American composers Irving Berlin and George Gershwin were born Israel Baline (Bailin) and Jacob Gershowitz, respectively.
Not all immigrant groups opted for anglicizing their names; the traces of these immigrant streams can be distinguished on the surname map. On the National Geographic map, green represents Irish surnames such as Sullivan, Murphy, O’Brien, and Kelly, most common in New England. Pink represents surnames of French origin, which are found most frequently in Louisiana and Maine. Notably, the sets of common surnames in the two French-settled areas are distinct, reflecting their different histories: in Louisiana we find Hebert, Guidry, Leblanc, Boudreaux, Fontenot, and Richard, while in Maine the list includes Michaud, Pelletier, Cyr, and Ouellette. Orange represents surnames of German origin, including the most frequent surname in Germany, Mueller (and its anglicized version Miller), as well as Wagner, Schultz, Meyer, Weber, Schneider (and its anglicized version Snyder), and others. Surnames of the German origin are particularly common in the Midwest, especially Wisconsin, and throughout the Plains states, areas that were settled by early German immigrants; in the Great Plains, many of these settlers were Volga Germans. Interspersed with German surnames are those of Scandinavian origin, shown in brown. The most common among them is Anderson, an anglicized version of the most frequent Swedish surname Andersson. Hansen and Hanson are two alternative spellings of another common Scandinavian-derived surname, the most widespread family name in Norway. Olson, Carlson, Larson, and Erickson are among the other popular Scandinavian surnames.
Surnames of Spanish-origin such as Martinez, Hernandez, Garcia, Gonzalez, and Rodriguez, are very common, as expected, in California and elsewhere along the Mexican border and in south Florida. In California, Garcia and Martinez trail only Smith and Johnson. Also common in California are surnames of Chinese origin such as Lee—which is as frequent as Garcia or Jones—and names from other Asian countries, such as the Korean Kim and the Vietnamese Nguyen. Asian surnames also constitute more than half of the most common surnames in Hawaii, where Chinese names such as Lee, Wong, and Chang, Japanese surnames such as Watanabe, Yamamoto, and Nakamura, and the Korean surname Kim are as common as the European surnames Smith, Jones, and Miller.
One potential problem with the National Geographic categorization scheme is that some of the surnames that derive from multiple national sources, are not marked as such. Miller can, for example, be an Anglicized version the German Müller or an English surname; the map reflects that by having the surname Miller in orange in the Midwest and in light blue elsewhere. But in other cases, the distinct national sources are not reflected in the map. Perhaps the most geographically complex surname is Lee. The map codes Lee as Chinese, not noting that it can also be derived from Korean and Vietnamese family names. But Lee is also an English name, stemming usually from lēah, a meadow or forest clearing, a word that also yielded the surnames Lea and Leigh. The Irish surname Ó Laoidaigh was also Anglicized as Lee. Derived from these varied sources, Lee ranked as the 22nd-most-common surname in the United States in the 2000 census.
An interesting feature of the list of the most common surnames in the U.S. is the prevalence of names of Welsh origin—names that most Americans would probably incorrectly trace to England. Such family names include Williams (#3, trailing only Smith and Johnson), Jones (#5) and Davis (#7). Another common Welsh surname, Lewis, occupies the 26th position. But Lewis also has multiple origins, as it can stem from the German Ludwig, the French Louis, the Irish Mac Lughaidh, and the Jewish Levi. In the case of GeoCurrents co-author Martin Lewis, the name is definitely of Welsh origin. But in the Welsh original it likely would have been Llywelyn [ɬə'wɛlɪn]), having been turned into Lewis by Anglo-Norman scribes.
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