Posted by: Jack Henry | February 28, 2023

Editor’s Corner: Surnames

Good morning, friends!

Recently, I took a DNA test. It was a gift from my husband for my birthday. We both took tests years ago, and my results were that I was a huge part (more than 60%) Indigenous American. Have you seen me? I am pretty darn white. Not only that, but my parents also told us kids we were Irish, Welsh, British, Slovak, and German. Anyway, there were some secret ingredients in me, but no Indigenous American according to 23 and Me.

It did get me thinking about family names in my past, though. And then I stumbled on this article at Trivia Genius. It’s about surnames. I’d love to share some of the information with you.

First, surname: this is also sometimes referred to as your family name. When you look around the world, however, not every country uses surnames like the United States. According to the article, many people in Mongolia don’t have surnames, in Hungary, what we would call the “last name” comes first. In Iceland, a surname can change with each passing generation.

The article is about the 20 most common surnames. Since China and India would fill all of the top spaces because of the populations, the article took a sampling across the world and provided these results.

Nguyen (24.5 million)

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.

Johnson (3.1 million)

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 became an obvious frontrunner — and it hasn’t looked back. It’s now the second most common surname in the United States.

Ivanov (2.5 million)

A leading surname in Bulgaria — and a top contender in other Eastern European countries — is basically a Slavic version of “Johnson.” That’s because Ivan is a mere translation of John, both of which trace back to the Greek name Ioannes, meaning “graced by Yahweh.” Variants such as Ivanov and Ivanovich basically mean “Son of Ivan,” whereas Ivanova is the most common feminization.

Rodriguez (9.2 million)

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.

Ali (29.8 million)

Ali ibn Abi Talib is something like Madonna or Prince: He’s so popular, people just know him by his first name — Ali. Both the cousin and son-in-law of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, Ali was also the religion’s fourth caliph (circa 656 CE), or successor, to Muhammad. His followers would become the first Shia Muslims, who now account for 10 percent of all Muslims. Ali’s place in Islamic history has turned his name, which means “lofty” or “sublime,” into one of the most common surnames in the Arabic world, primarily in Pakistan and Somalia.

This is just a sampling of the article. If you want to read more, click here. The history of these names is fascinating.

Kara Church | Technical Editor, Advisory | Technical Publications

Pronouns: she/her | Call via Teams |

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