A List Of The Most Popular US Surnames & Their Meanings
The 25 Most Popular Surnames and What They Mean
Every 10 years America holds a census. So far this century they have held three counts – in 2000, 2010, and 2020.
The 2020 census was held in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, which made this data collection exercise one of the hardest since the invention of the internet. However, the data was collected and it allows us to get a better understanding of the people who make up our country.
The census can tell us lots of information about our country – from which areas need more schools and hospitals, to which religions are growing, to what the most common surnames are in the country.
Today, we are going to look at the 25 surnames the 2020 and 2010 census data say are most popular in the USA.
You may be able to guess a good number of the following 25 names – Smith, Jones, and Thomas all make appearances of course. In the 2010 and 2020 censuses, we also saw 3 Hispanic surnames make it into the top 25.
In this article, we are going to go through the top 25 surnames in America and talk you through their meanings. We are also going to give you a brief history of surnames and why they are so important.
A Brief History Of Surnames
It seems impossible now, but for thousands of years no one used surnames. The practice has been used in Hebrew for a few thousand years, in China for around 3,000 years, and in Europe for just over 1,000 years.
Interestingly, historians believe that people only started using surnames when countries started to take censuses. In China, for example, it is believed that to make one of their censuses 3,000 years ago easier to do they asked people to adopt family names. This made contacting and finding people easier. It also made it easier for governments to keep track of who was paying their taxes and criminals.
The tradition of children taking their father’s surname comes from China and it is something that most Americans chose to do today.
Another early example of surnames being used can be found in the Old and New Testaments and the Tohar. In fact, there is a whole book called Numbers, which acts as a census for Moses, the Hebrews in the deserts, and their descendants. In this book, they use family trees to track families from Adam to King David, and eventually to Jesus.
The name KATZ is often referred to as “the first surname“. But like many other names believed to be early surnames, it is in fact not a name but a title. KATZ is a shortened version of Kohen Tzedek which means priest. This title is used in the Old Testament when listing the unbroken line between Aaron (Moses’ brother) to King David. Each member of the tree is titled KATZ.
In most areas of the world, particularly in Europe, there was not much need for surnames until the Middle Ages.
People tended to live in small, cut off communities and they would know everyone in this community by face and name. These groups would only mix on very rare occasions, so there was no need to use surnames in these small villages.
As technology and medicine became more advanced, the population boomed and villages became towns, and cities began to appear around the world. With so many people living in close proximity, surnames as a means of identification are essential.
As taking on a surname was not demanded by the government, like it was in China, the Europeans had no one set way to choose a surname. However, entomologists categorize the names into four different groups – patronymic, locative, occupational, and nicknames. It is worth noting that surnames were originally very simple and have become more complex in Europe over time.
A patronymic is a name that is derived from a parent or ancestor.
The most common patronymics are ‘son’ and ‘dottir’. These surnames take the name of the father and attach either ‘son’ or ‘dottir’ as a suffix. For example, if a man called David had a son called Edward, he would be called Edward Davidson. Dottir was used by many Norse communities for the women in their tribes.
Patronymics were incredibly popular with Vikings and other Norse groups. Orphans would often name themselves after gods or important people in their lives. This naming system is still used in parts of Iceland.
Lots of common American surnames are patronymic – Thompson, Johnson, and Anderson.
A locative comes from the word location and is a way to identify someone based on where they come from – either where they lived, worked, or were born.
Locative names can include the names of cities – like York, Darby, or London. They can also refer to names based on landmarks. These types of locative names include Marsh, Dell, Underhill.
These names might be adopted by the whole city, or by a small group of people who lived by the landmark. Within the bigger cities, people often chose to use the name of their borough.
Many members of the nobility named themselves after the areas they ruled over – Hastings is one of these names.
An occupational name was taken from the job of the person or their ancestors. Occupational names could also be taken from the status of the person – names like Knight and Prince are believed to be based on status.
Baker, Tanner, and Smith are all occupational names. These were the most common and simplest types of names in most parts of Europe. Many of these names still remain in multiple European languages.
It was not uncommon for occupational and patronymic names to be combined. For example, Bakerson might be the name used by a family of bakers.
There was a time in Europe where people went by nicknames rather than by surnames. Think of the great kings and queens of Europe – Katherine the Great, Richard the Lionheart, etc.
When people in Europe started using surnames, many people took their nickname as their new surname. Many of these names are still in use today.
Examples of surnames that have come from nicknames include Little, Jolly, and Mould.
Europe was not the only place to use these types of naming conventions. However, the majority of American surnames have come from Europe – whether they have routes in Spanish, Deutsch, German, French, Portuguese, or English.
American Names – Slavery, Native Americans, and European Ancestors
Many Americans will be able to trace their surname back to the places in Europe where their families originally emigrated from. But it is not that simple for every American.
As part of their lives as slaves, many African and Indian slaves were stripped of their names when they were sold to America. They were then given new names by their owners once they reached the United States. People were often named after their white owners and his family.
Names were incredibly important in many Native American cultures. Many tribes had different approaches to names. Some took their surname from the name of their tribe. Others had a family name they would keep and pass on. While others were given names based on their deeds in life. However, many Native American children that were removed from their families were forced to take English surnames.
If you wish to dig further into online information about surnames, do check out our review of the Best Genealogy Sites – covering the top four sites, the best DNA-testing sites, and the best free sites.
25 Most Common US Surnames; Their Origin & Meanings
Now that we understand more about the history of surnames and where most of the American surnames came from, let’s take a look at the list of the top 25 surnames. We will also be talking about the origins of the names and what they mean.
Population Count 2010: 2,442,977
Population Count 2000: 2,376,206
Smith is an occupational surname. A smith is someone who works with metal. It is said to be one of the first jobs that required real specialization.
Smiths were essential to many medieval societies, especially when they were at war. Many people worked as smiths or wanted to take a name that suggested there was a smith in their family in the hope that it would gain them favor.
The occupation was so important that nearly every language in Europe and the Middle East has an equivalent of Smith in their language – Sepp, Ferrer, Schmidt, and Kalowski all mean Smith or blacksmith.
The word smith is believed to have come from the Old English word smið, this word is believed to have been derived from smitan which means to strike or to hammer.
English and Scottish
Population Count 2010: 1,932,812
Population Count 2000: 1,857,160
Johnson is the second most popular surname in America. As you can probably tell, Johnson is a patronymic name – meaning “John’s son”. The name is a popular name in both the US and England, with leaders of both countries have had this surname.
The English name John comes from the Latin – Johannes – which is derived from the Greek “Ἰωάννης Iōannēs”. Ἰωάννης Iōannēs is a translation of the Hebrew ” יוחנן Yohanan” which means “Yahwah favored” or “God favored”.
The name was incredibly popular for centuries in Europe thanks to the popularity of Saints John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist. Cities saw spikes in the name whenever relics from either saint were displayed.
The surname Johnson is the 154th most popular surname in the world. The name is most popular in the United States of America.
English, Scottish, Italian, and French
Population Count (2010): 1,625,252
Population Count (2000): 1,534,042
There is evidence to suggest that the name Williams appeared independently in England, Italy, and France. Scotland also had close ties to France throughout the Middle Ages and the name was also very popular there.
There was a huge boost in the name’s popularity after England was invaded by William the Conqueror and his Norman army. The name became more popular in France, Scotland, and England. There is a Dutch version of the surname too – Willems.
The name William has roots in both Old French and Germanic. “Wil” can be translated as desire and “helm” means both helmet and protection. The name means “he will protect” or “God protect him”.
It is the second most popular name in Wales and New Zealand. The name is also popular in Australia and England.
Old English, Old French, and Old Norse
Population Count (2010): 1,437,026
Population Count (2000): 1,380,145
Brown is a very popular name, particularly in English speaking countries. It is the second most popular name in Canada and Scotland. There is a very large population of Browns in Southern Scotland. It is also a popular name in Australia, England, and here in the US.
There are two theories about the nature of the name Brown.
Some believe that it is a patronymic from the German name Bruno. There are several saints with the name from Germany and Italy in the Middle Ages.
Others believe that Brown is a nickname surname. There is evidence to suggest that it originally referred to people with brown hair or who wore brown clothing. Not people with brown skin as historians have previously suggested.
The name has equivalents in most Modern European languages, as well as in parts of the Middle East.
Population Count (2010): 1,425,470
Population Count (2000): 1,362,755
Jones is another version of Johnson; it is a patronymic name that comes from the name John. However, the name originates from the small country of Wales, UK. The name is still incredibly popular there – over 5% of the population have the surname Jones. This including the legendary singer Tom Jones who is from the country.
The Welsh took the name from the Hebrew name Johan (a variation of John) which means “God is Gracious”. The name spread across the border into England. Prisoners also took the name to Australia.
In American and British culture, the phrase “Keeping up with the Jones” exists as a way to refer to trying to keep up with the pressure that neighbors and society put on people to fit in and improve – like getting the newest TV or having the best lawn at the front of their house.
Population Count (2010): 1,425,470
Population Count (2000): 1,166,120
At number 6, Garcia is the first Hispanic surname to make it onto this list. Before the 1990 census, there were no Hispanic names on this list at all.
There is debate around where the name comes from. Some people believe that the name is a patronymic of the Garca (the Spanish version of Gerald). There are equivalents of this name across the whole of Europe. Gerald was a popular name in the Middle Ages.
The other theory is that the name is derived from the words “garze” meaning young and the word “(H)artz” which means (the) bear. The name Garcia would then mean young bear or wild bear.
32% of the people named Garcia in the world live in Mexico. The name is also popular in other South American countries, Spain, and in Spanish communities across the world.
UK and Irish
Population Count (2010): 1,127,803
Population Count (2000): 1,161,437
Miller is a name that originated in the United Kingdom and Ireland. A miller was someone who worked at a mill to make flour. Flour was an important part of the diet in the UK in the Middle Ages, Millers were important and hard working members of society.
The name has an equivalent in all major European languages.
At one point, the name Miller was also a locative name for people who came from Glasgow and its surrounding countryside. This version of the name Miller is not very popular anymore.
English and Welsh
Population Count (2010): 1,116,357
Population Count (2000): 1,072,335
There are two possible origins of the name Davis.
In some areas of the world, Davis is a patronymic name that means son of David. In Hebrew David means “beloved” or “treasured by God”. It is a popular name thanks to King David who is a key figure of Christianity and Judaism. Jesus was referred to as “son of David” multiple times in the New Testament.
The name is also believed to be a locative Welsh name. Davis comes from the word Dyfed, which is an area on the West coast of the country. The word Dafydd (a direct translation of David) appeared in the language much later.
Population Count (2010): 1,094,924
Population Count (2000): 804,240
Rodrigues is a patronymic name that means son of Rodrigo. The Hispanic Patronymic names use “es” or “ez” as a suffix to mean “descendant of”. The name also has come to mean “famous ruler”.
Rodrigo is the Spanish translation of the name “Roderic” (German). Roderic means “rich in fame or power”.
The first records of this name being used come from 9th century Spain. It is a popular name in both North and South America.
Population Count (2010): 1,060,159
Population Count (2000): 775,072
Martinez is another Hispanic patronymic name – meaning “son of Martin”. It is the most popular surname in the Spanish language.
Martin is derived from Martinus which is a Latin word that has roots in the word Mars. Mars was the Roman god of war and fertility. The name became popular in English thanks to the exploits of the Saint, Martin of Tours.
There are equivalents of this name in most European languages.
The name is incredibly popular in South America and other former Spanish colonies. The name is growing increasingly common in the US.
Population Count (2010): 1,043,281
Population Count (2000): 706,372
The names Hernando and Fernando were used interchangeably throughout the Middle Ages and were often confused by non-Spanish speakers. Therefore, the name Hernandez can either mean “son of Hernando” or “son of Fernando”. The name Fernandez has the same issues.
The Portuguese equivalent of these names is Hernandes and Fernandes. The “ez” and “es” suffixes mean “descendant of”. Both the Spanish and Portuguese names are patronymic surnames.
There is a Nobel Hernandez family in Spain, who are believed to be descendants of a line of the French royal family. So, the name may have deeper roots in Old French.
Population Count (2010): 874,523
Population Count (2000): 621,536
Lopez is a patronymic Hispanic surname that means “descendant or son of Lope”. The Portuguese equivalent is Lopes – the name also has equivalents in Catalan and Valencian, Romanian, and other older European languages.
The name Lope comes from the Latin work Lupus which means wolf. There are also European flowers called Lupus. The name Lopez is the 5th most popular name in Spain, and it is also the 5th most popular name in the world. It is the 12th most popular name in the US.
Population Count (2010): 841,025
Population Count (2000): 597,718
This name has two meanings. Firstly, the name Gonzales is a patronymic surname that means “son of Gonzalo”. Gonzalo used to be the same for a guard, officer, or castle guard – so, it is also an Occupational name.
Secondly, a version of the name comes from the Old Spanish for war elf – Gundisalv, which eventually got changed to Gonzalez. The words are derived from Guntho (battle or war) and Alf (elf).
The name is incredibly popular in Spain and Cuba as well as in the United States.
English and Scottish
Population Count (2010): 1,094,924
Population Count (2000): 801,882
Wilson is an English and Scottish patronymic surname that means “son of William”. The name Will was often used as a nickname for men named William and it still is. So, Wilson is also a nickname surname.
As a reminder, William comes from Old French – wil (desire or will) helm (protection or helmet).
Population Count (2010): 784,404
Population Count (2000): 762,394
Anderson is an English patronymic surname that means “son of Andrew”. It is a popular name with the Scottish and Irish because of Saint Andrew (the patron saint of Scotland).
Andrew is derived from the Greek name “Andreas” which means “strong and manly”.
Population Count (2010): 756,142
Population Count (2000): 710,696
The name Thomas comes from the Bible, Jesus gave one of his disciples the name, which means twin. This disciple is most famous for denying Christ after his death before going on to be one of the founders of the church.
The name was very popular in Christian communities during the Middle Ages. When people began to use surnames, some people chose to take Thomas as their surname as a tribute to the saint.
There are English, Welsh, Irish, Scottish, French, German, Dutch, and Danish versions of this name.
Population Count (2010): 751,209
Population Count (2000): 720,370
Taylor is an o0ccupational surname. Taylor is the English version of the name. The word Taylor is an Anglicization of the word “tailleur” which later became “tailor”. Both of these words come from the Latin “taliare” which means “to cut”. The word was brought to England by invading Norman French soldiers just after 1066.
A tailor is a clothes maker. They cut the fabric and sew it together to make custom clothes. They still exist around the world although having custom clothing made can be very expensive.
Population Count (2010): 724,374
Population Count (2000): 698,671
No one is exactly sure where the name Moore came from or what it was originally meant to mean. Here are a few theories that have tried to explain the existence of this name.
There are many references in old literature, including in Shakespeare’s plays, to the Moores. In this context, the word is referring to anyone with a darker complexion than was typically seen in England at the time.
It has also been suggested that this name may be locative – referring to people who live out on or around the moors.
Population Count (2010): 708,099
Population Count (2000): 666,125
Jackson, like Wilson, is both a patronymic and nickname surname. The name Jackson means “son of Jack” and the name Jack used to be a nickname for people named Jacob. Although it is now a name in its own right.
The name Jacob means “to supplant”, the character in the Bible is often considered the Patriarch of Judaism.
Population Count (2010): 702,625
Population Count (2000): 672,711
Martin is the English equivalent of Martinez (see above). It comes from the Latin name Martinus which is derived from the Latin word for Mars, the Roman God of war and fertility. It was not uncommon for people to take their names from the Gods or Saints – particularly if they were orphaned or exiled.
Population Count (2010): 693,023
Population Count (2000): 605,860
(Not to be confused with the Chinese surname Li).
Lee is a Middle English surname that has a bit of mystery surrounding it. It was given as both a locative and an occupational surname.
The locative surnames referred to anyone who lived near a “laye”. Laye can mean a clearing in a forest. But it could also be referring to laye lines – this is an Old English Druidic concept of energy currents in the land.
The occupational surname was given to people who plowed the fields outside the village and on farms.
Population Count (2010): 681,645
Population Count (2000): 488,521
Perez is a Spanish patronymic name that means “son of Pero of Pedro”.
In Spanish, the name Pedro means a memory or memorial stone. People are often named Pedro as a tribute to lost loved ones.
In Spanish, the name Pero means is a translation of the name Peter. Peter means reliable rock or stone. It comes from the Bible, Jesus named one of his disciples Peter and said he was the rock the church would be built on.
The name Perez is popular in Spain and South America.
Hebrew and English
Population Count (2010): 664,644
Population Count (2000): 644,368
The name Thompson is an English patronymic name that means “son of Thomas”. As we mentioned above, Thomas is a name that means twin and is first used in the Bible. Its use in the religious text made it very popular in Europe and many saints were named Thomas.
English and Irish
Population Count (2010): 660,491
Population Count (2000): 639,515
White is an English and Irish nickname surname that refers to someone with very pale hair, very pale skin or both. It is an Anglicization of the Scottish name “MacGillebhàin” which means “son of a fair woman”.
White is one of the few names on this list to decrease in popularity between 2010 and 2020.
Population Count (2010): 624,252
Population Count (2000): 593,542
Harris is a Middle English patronymic surname that means “son of Harry”. It is also a nickname surname because Harry is a nickname for people called Henry.
The name Henry is an Old French name that means “seat of power”. It comes from the elements haim (“home”) and ric (“powerful”).
The name Harris has an equivalent in all the major European languages, as well as having an equivalent in Old Norse.
Harris is the 25th most popular surname in the USA. It is most popular in English speaking countries like Canada, England, and Scotland.
The history of surnames dates at least as far back as China in 1000 BCE. Since the popularization of family names took hold in China, the practice has spread across the world. Now, for many of us, our surname holds as much cultural and personal significance as our first names do.