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The Fascinating Origins of 20 Popular Last Names

Choosing a name for your son and daughter is a very exciting task that usually requires a long thought process. But what about surnames? While we can all be sure that our given names were carefully picked for us, a surname is something that is handed down through generations, and we usually just kind of accept them. But even the most common and seemingly ordinary names had to start somewhere. 

Most surnames were derived from occupations, mental and moral characteristics, a supposed resemblance to an animal's appearance, or even just the habitual use of a nickname that eventually became a person’s formal surname. The following list of 20 popular surnames, in Europe and outside of it, reveals their fascinating origins. 

1. GreenThe Fascinating Origins of 20 Popular Last Names, trees

Did you know that this surname has been around since the 7th century? One could be called Green if they played the role of the mystic “green man” in the May Day fertility celebrations. May Day is an old European spring fertility festival held in honor of ‘the trees and their mistresses’. The role involved dressing in green clothing and leaves, which symbolized youthful enthusiasm, spring, and the awakening of nature. 

2. Smith

Smith, sometimes also spelled as Smithe, Smythe, or Schmidt, is an old English name given to those who worked with metal. Dating back to the pre-7th century, it’s probably related to the old English word ‘smitan’, which means ‘to smite’ or ‘to strike’. So, originally it probably referred to a soldier, or to the person hitting metal to form it into armor, a blacksmith.

3. Lopez

Lopez is one of the most popular surnames in the Spanish peninsula and in South America, and it almost certainly has Roman-Latin origins. It is derived from the ancient word ‘lupus’ meaning wolf. Because it’s so widespread, historians believe it was given to a large number of people, maybe even a tribe or a clan. 

4. ThomasThe Fascinating Origins of 20 Popular Last Names, twins

There are over 200 variations and ways to spell Thomas or Tomas, but they all originate from the Aramaic word ‘taoma’ (תאומא), meaning twin. The first recorded bearer of the name was St. Thomas, one of the early Christian disciples. Up until the 12th century, it was a name only given to priests, but after the crusades, it spread and became popular all over Europe.

5. Hill

Hill is an English name, referring to... someone living on a hill. Not too many surprises there. However, recent research indicates that not all Hills got their name because of the location. Some people got the name as a result of the shortening of the names ‘Hilderbrand’ and ‘Hilliard’, which are derived from the ancient Anglo-Saxon term “hild”, meaning battle or war. 

Related: 14 Baby Names That Are Banned Around the World

6. Murphy

The name Murphy comes from the Irish term for a sea warrior. Ireland, the Isle of Man, and parts of northern England were under Viking control for several centuries, so there is surely a connection between a name meaning ‘sea warrior’ and the Vikings.  

7. Cook

If your last name is Cook, you probably have some ancestors who did that for a living. The derivation is from the Olde English pre-7th century word “coc”, which in itself came from the Latin ‘cocus’.

8. Bakerbaker

Similarly to Cook, Baker is an Old English name referring to someone who was baking bread, running a communal kitchen (most humbler households did not have cooking facilities other than a pot over a fire), or owning a kiln for firing pottery. The right to be in charge of these services was hereditary in England. Other variations of the name include Baxter and Becker. 

Related: The Meaning Behind the Days of the Week and Their Names

9. Hall

The surname Hall, generally considered to have Scottish origins, has several possible sources. It may refer to someone living near a large house called a Hall, or to someone working in such a place. But it could also be a locational surname, given to those who lived in any of the villages called Hall (there were quite a few of those in England).

10. Campbell

This ancient Scottish name has its origins in the Gaelic nickname "Caimbeul", meaning "wry (or crooked) mouth".  

12. Singh

The Fascinating Origins of 20 Popular Last Names, lion

Singh, which is Sikh in origin, means ‘lion’. Once a young Sikh boy would reach manhood he was granted the name Singh to imply that he has joined the ranks of his father. Therefore, it isn't surprising that it’s one of the most popular names in the world.

12. Walker

Walker probably referred to one who did fulling, a vocation that required walking on cloth to improve its quality. Another occupation likely related to this last name was that of military officers who would walk around forest areas to monitor them. 


13. Rogers

Rogers simply means ‘Son of Roger’. But who was Roger? This name comes from the legend of the Danish King Hrothgar. The word itself means ‘famous spear’ and was introduced to England by the Normans. Roger became a very common given name in the Middle Ages. 

14. Philips

The Greek name Philippos means ‘lover of horses’, and that is how we got the name Philip and Felipe. Thus, if your surname is Philips, someone down the line must have been very keen on horses. 

15. Fox

The Fascinating Origins of 20 Popular Last Names, fox

The name Fox was taken directly from the animal’s name. It’s one of those last names that started out as a nickname. Foxes were universally admired for their speed and cunning attributes, and those who were nicknamed "Fox" probably possessed these characteristics. Or they just had red hair, it was one or the other. 

16. Russell

Speaking of red hair, that’s the sole meaning of the name Russell. “Rous” is an old French word for Red, and “-el” is diminutive meaning little. 

17. White

Similarly to Russell, White was also a name that referred to a person’s hair or skin color. Those who bore the name probably had white hair or a very light complexion. Another possible origin is residential. In that case, it would describe someone who lived near a “wiht”, or a river bend. 

Related: Ever Wondered How Hurricanes Are Named?

18. KimThe Fascinating Origins of 20 Popular Last Names, gold

Kim, which means gold, was the name of a family that rose to prominence and became the rulers of the Silla kingdom (which eventually became modern-day Korea) for 700 years (57 BCE–935 CE).

In 1894, Korea was occupied by Japan and the Japanese forced all Koreans to take surnames (for many centuries in Korea, surnames were rare among anyone but royalty and the aristocracy). Commoners often chose the names of lofty clans like the Kims. Today, one in every five South Koreans bears the name Kim.

19. Li

Li is the second most popular surname on the planet. It means “plum” in old Chinese and refers to one living near a plum tree. 

20. Clark

Clark means professional scribe. During the Middle Ages virtually the only people who were able to read and write were members of religious orders, so its proximity to the word “cleric”, a priest, isn’t coincidental. 

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