Last Names - Surnames

Almost everyone in the world has a last name, but that wasn't always the case! In early civilization, people went by only one name. But as the population grew in various locations, it became difficult and confusing to refer to people by just one name. So surnames were created based on a person's location, parentage, occupation, or characteristics.

Most Common Last Names in the United States

We've compiled a list of the Top 1,000 last names in the United States and their meanings. Here are the top 10:

  • 1. Smith
  • 2. Johnson
  • 3. Williams
  • 4. Brown
  • 5. Jones
  • 6. Garcia
  • 7. Miller
  • 8. Davis
  • 9. Rodriguez
  • 10. Martinez

Types of Western Surnames

Patronymic/Family - A patronymic surname was commonly adopted in England, Scotland, and Ireland to denote a person's family or father. Harrison, for example, is a patronymic surname which means "son of Harry/Harold." O'Shea meant "Of the family of Shea." Patronymic surnames date back to ancient Greece.

Occupational - Your ancestors could also have adopted a last name that had to do with their job or occupation. Occupational surnames include Baker, Mason (bricklayer), Thatcher, Carter, and Paige. If you have an occupational surname, then you can be sure that someone in your distant ancestry actually had that job!

Habitational/Location - A habitational surname indicated where a family lived. They could take on the description of where their home was, like Hill, or the actual town name like Durham. Which John are you referring to? The one that lives over by the river. Oh that John! John "by-the-river" eventually morphed into John Rivers. Other habitational surnames include Woods, Arroyo, Scott (from Scotland), and Middleton (the town in the middle).

Appearance/Characteristics - Some surnames were given to actually describe the looks, age, or personality of the bearer. Young, for example, might indicate the younger of two family members named John. Snow would mean they were light complected or had hair white as snow. Strong would mean the person had either exceptional physical strength or was forceful in personality.

Thousands of Last Names

Browse our full database of thousands of last names and meanings from a wide variety of origins and locations.

Related Podcast Episodes

Surnames have become a big baby name trend in the 21st century. Listen to founders Jennifer Moss and Mallory Moss deep dive into occupational surnames and their influence on baby naming.

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