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Hello, Mr. and Mrs. Smith: America’s most common surnames

Surname Meanings
22 August 2014
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blacksmithYou won’t find this Top 10 list on Letterman, but according to the 2000 U.S. Census, the top 10 surnames in the United States, in order, are:

  • Smith
  • Johnson
  • Williams
  • Brown
  • Jones
  • Miller
  • Davis
  • García
  • Rodríguez
  • Wilson

In 2000, there were 2.4 million Smiths, 1.9 million Johnsons, and 1.5 million Williamses in the U.S. Those were the top three names, in the same order, in the 1990 census as well.

Census data tells us that 73 percent of Smiths are white, and 22 percent are black. Sixty-two percent of Johnsons are white, 34 percent are black, and the rest self-identified as Asians or Pacific Islanders, Native Americans, or Alaskans, multiracial, or Hispanic.

Let’s look closer at the origins of these names:

Smith

The name “Smith” originated in England and comes from “smið” or “smiþ,” an Old English word meaning “one who works in metal.” An early record of the name dates back to Anglo-Saxon times, when people used surnames that described their occupation but did not yet pass down family names: Ecceard Smith lived in County Durham in northeastern England in 975.

You’ll find names derived from Smith, or “one who works with iron,” in other languages as well:

  • Dutch: De Smid, Smets
  • Italian: Ferrari
  • French: Lefebvre
  • Spanish: Herrera
  • Celtic languages: MacGowan, Goff
  • Serbo-Croatian: Kovac
  • Arabic: Haddad

Other Smiths throughout the years were not blacksmiths took (or were given) the name precisely because it was so common:

  • Some adopted the name when they wished to avoid being found.
  • Some Native Americans took the name Smith while North America was being colonized to use in dealing with the colonists.
  • Many African slaves were given this name because it was the surname of their owners, and others took the name upon their emancipation.
  • During the World Wars, many German-Americans anglicized the common and equivalent German surname Schmidt or Schmitz to Smith in order to avoid discrimination.

Johnson

Johnson is a patronym of the name John, meaning that it originally signified someone who was the “son of John.” It’s an English, Scottish, and Irish name of Norman origin. It is the second-most common name in the U.S. and the 10th-most common surname in the U.K. The name John comes from the Latin form of the Greek name Ioannes, which is derived from the Hebrew name Yochanan, meaning “Yahweh is gracious.”

Other surnames related to Johnson include Di Giovanni, Hovanessian, Ioannou, Ivanenko, Ivanov, Ivanović, Ivanovski, Jānsons, Janavičius, Jonavičius, Janowicz, Jansen, Jansons/Jansone, Janssen, Jensen, Johansson, Johnston, Johnstone, Jonson, Jonsson, Johnsson, Jones, Jovanović, MacIain, Juánez, and Ioannidis.

In Ireland, Johnson is an anglicization of the Gaelic names Mac Seáin (McShane) and Mac Eoin (McKeown).

Williams

Like Johnson, Williams, which originated in medieval England, is a patronymic surname. It means son or descendant of Williame (which is the Northern French origin of the English name William). The Old French name Williame has the Germanic roots of “will” (desire) and “helm” (helmet or protection).

Related names are Willimon, Williman, and Williamson. The earliest known recorded use of the surname William was in 1279 in Oxford and that of Williamses was in 1307 in Staffordshire, both in England.

Brown is an English-language surname that started out as a descriptive name from the 7th-century Old English word “burn” or the Old Norse personal name “Bruni.” It referred to someone with brown hair, complexion, or clothing. It’s related to the German name Braun.

Jones is a surname deriving from medieval English and like Johnson, derives from the given name John, which itself comes from the Hebrew name Yochanan. The first known use of the name in writing was “Matilda Jones,” who lived in England in 1273.

Miller is a name of English and Scottish origin and describes one whose occupation was to mill grain. The name goes way back in England, Ireland, and Scotland. Millers with Scottish Highlands forebears are associated with the Clan MacFarlane. One of the earliest recorded uses of the surname was by Reginald Miller in the Subsidy Tax Rolls of Sussex, England, in 1327.

Davis is a patronymic surname, originating in Wales, and so means “son of David.” It’s also found in Ireland. Other spellings include Davies, Davie, Dafis, and Dafys, and the name is related to David and Davison, as well.

García is a name of Basque origin that is common throughout Spain, Portugal, parts of France, the Americas, and the Philippines. It’s known to have been used since the high Middle Ages and is thought to have come from the Basque word Hartz, meaning “bear,” from a Basque adjective meaning “young,” or possibly from both words to mean “the young bear.” Variants of the name include Garcicea, Gartzi, Gartzia, Gartze, Garsea, and Gastea. Cognates include Gassie, Gassion, Gassio, and Gassion (which was the singer Edith Piaf’s real surname).

Rodríguez is a Spanish patronymic; it means “son of Rodrigo,” and its Portuguese equivalent is Rodrígues. Rodrigo (the Spanish form of Roderick) means “famous power,” from the Germanic elements “hrod” (fame) and “roc” (power).

Wilson is a patronymic form of the popular medieval name Will; it means “son of Will.” Will is from the Germanic “wil,” meaning “desire.” The surname Wilson is first known to have been recorded in England, as Willeson, in 1324.

Even if your surname didn’t make the Top 10 list, you can learn more about what it means and where people with your surname came from at the surname widget on Ancestry.

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