Surnames: what’s up with them, anyway? But be careful: you might be sorry you asked.
Nesdale, Puempel, Szczur
Unless I’m reading Conrad Black, I can go weeks without running into an English word I’ve never seen before, but not a week goes by that I don’t see a new surname. Not a week.
Vokoun, Lengies, Laich
After exactly thirty-one hundred and twenty weeks on the planet, I think the incidence of names-new-to-me should be dropping, but it is not so. Why is that?
Liddi, Uggla, Danks
Certainly the global nature of professional sports puts fellows who’ve come from away—a long way away, some of them—on network television where I can run into them.
Kuroda, Aybar, Strop
Japanese and Latino baseball players—I get why those names are new to me.
Zubrus, Zidlicky, Rinne
Russian and Finn hockey players—well, OK, I get that too.
Akaka, Begich, Thune
But it isn’t only sports. As these US Senators remind me, that other blood sport—politics—is rife with what look to me like names-from-away, and yet aren’t.
Braley, Norlock, Lobb
Nor—in this dimension at least—are Canadian politicos more restrained than their American counterparts.
Poti, Parise, Purke
Maybe we see more than our share of names here in the New World: an ongoing gift from our multicultural makeup. But it isn’t as if I’ve lived my whole life in a box. Growing up in Edmonton—which passed for multicultural, about twenty-six hundred weeks ago—I met immigrants and descendants of immigrants from Europe (Eastern and Western), and the East (Middle and Far). At university, I took classes from Lebanese and Iranian professors, and studied with Chinese and Nigerian students. At work, I lunched with Indo-Canadians and Latin Americans.
Dolis, Maholm, Veal
But although I’ve paid my multicultural dues, as it were, I still see new names every week, most of them giving me no clue about their national or ethnic origin.
Albers, Biffle, Ake
And then there are the names I know just because there’s one well-known holder. Other than the golfer, I don’t anyone named Kuchar; outside hockey, no Spezza; outside baseball, no Jeter.
Cleto, Callaspo, Fick
All of which leads me to believe that there must be a lot of surnames. A Lot. And so I turned to Google to answer this question: Just how many surnames are there, in the whole wide world?
And Google said, Thank you for playing.
Haren, Hextall, Hauck
Although I didn’t get what you’d call a high-reliability number, it wasn’t a total waste of time.
I learned that French Canadian surnames number only in the few thousands, whereas there are hundreds of thousands in France. I learned that there are only 270 surnames in Korea (way to go, guys!). I learned that although there are only 7,327 surnames (Google may not always be right, but he can be remarkably precise) for 1.28 billion Chinese, a study of 18 million people in the USA turned up 900,000 surnames. (I think he rounded that one off.)
Klesla, Werek, Kreuk
I learned that one-half of Koreans go by one of 5 surnames (Kim, Lee, Park, Choi, Chong), that one-fifth of Chinese go by one of 3 surnames (Wang, Li, Zhang), but that only 1 in every 25 Americans goes by one of their 7 most-common surnames (Smith, Johnson, Williams, Brown, Jones, Miller, Davis).
Eveland, Shoppach, Lidge
I learned that there is a Consolidated Jewish Surname Index, and that it identifies 699,084 surnames in 7.3 million records. I learned that 754,857 last names (more or less) accounted for 96.5% of the population of the USA in one recent census.
Hellweg, Legwand, Lohse
I learned that there are 214,343 Gibsons in the USA, making it the 119th most popular surname. (Well, 119th most common, anyway. Who’s to say who’s popular, and who’s not?) I learned that there are a whole whack of Gibsons in Australia—on the subject of whether they were disproportionately represented in the great transportation of convicts, the site was, mercifully, silent.
Hanzal, Chipchura, Kyl
And finally—because this is where I stopped—I learned that there are 8 million unique surnames in a database with records of about 300 million people in 26 countries with a total population of 1 billion. That would exclude China and India, then.
Yandle, Ferrito, Smoak
Oh, my goodness: 8 million and counting. I guess that explains it.
Benskin, Chisu, Risch
But I fear it gets worse. With most cultures using a static family name as the surname, ever so gradually there will, over time, be fewer of them. Yet as numerous and varied as family names are, Wiki reports that some folks do not use them: Icelanders, Tibetans, Burmese, Javanese, and some groups in East Africa. Of course, when family names aren’t your thing, you just create a new surname from the father’s forename, the way Nordic folks used to. Think ‘Alfred’s son’, now Ottawa’s very own adopted son, ‘Alfredsson’.
And now, North America is trending to unique first names: think Destry Spielberg, Kyd Duchovny, and Kal-El Coppola as the celebrity expression of this trend. Would that it were limited to celebrities.
Xylon, Navy, Jah
Oh my goodness. If these folks ever get together—the surname makers-up and the forename makers-up—we’ll have a whole new crop of surnames to contend with, as if the 8 million-plus weren’t enough.
I don’t know—maybe I should get ahead of the curve on this one. ‘Shell Sheldonsdatter’ has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?