What’s In a Name?

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?


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14 Responses to What’s In a Name?

  1. Mary Gibson says:

    Oh dear. It makes plain old ‘mary margaret gibson’ seem terribly ‘plain jane’. But then I AM an accountant (born and, to a certain extent, bred) and perhaps the naming gods were wise. Well conceived and written.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Mary – Well, Jane would be positively retro, these days–and likely popular for that very reason. But the zeitgeist has shifted – where our great-grandparents were constrained by naming conventions, our parents chose names that would ‘announce well’ (and not unusual) at high school graduations, our children’s generation chooses distinctive names on purpose.

  2. Jim taylor says:

    My grandson attended a birthday party for his friend Tyson yesterday afternoon — 24 children of both sexes — at a bowling alley. All the names went up on the electronic score boards for each lane. Granted, these are first names, but even so, there were only about six that I would have recognized — Brad, Alec, Stephen, Ben… The rest were all either creative names, or creative spellings of names. Joey came out as Jouie, for example. And there was a Railin. Sorry, I should have taken notes, but I didn’t. I’m getting too old to learn all these names; “Hey, you!” still works.


    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim – Well, and since when was Tyson a first name anyway? I seem to remember my father saying that his genealogical explorations taught him that all last names were once first names – in small villages, no one needed more than one name.

      • In our global village…some people/couples still only need one name: Madonna, Cher, Bradangelina and the rest of the larger-than-my life mob that are oddly worshipped: their faces in our faces at the check-out lines (or their cellulite and duck lips). But some countries, you are glad to point out, bring the variety #s WAY down. Know hope.

        • Isabel Gibson says:

          Barbara – Yes, and golf has its own need-no-last name wonders: Tiger, Phil, Luke, Boo, Bubba. And surely that pre-teen Xylon I knew 30 years ago won’t ever really need a last name to identify him. Maybe it’s like English spelling – those who know argue that (non-phonetic) spelling imparts crucial information on a word’s provenance. On that score, we should all adopt the Spanish naming convention that retains maternal and paternal last names, I guess…

  3. Susan Wright says:

    What a delightful post. My maiden name was Szasz, reflecting my Hungarian heritage. The SZ is pronouced S, but only Hungarians and other eastern Europeans know that so I spent all of my K to 12 school years listening for announcements asking Susan ZZSSZZZ to show up at the office, to accept a typing award, to go to the gym, etc. I know that it’s not the ONLY reason I got married at a very young age, but I’m sure it influenced my decision to ditch my maiden name at the earliest opportunity! (Luckily my husband is a good man with a very plain surname).

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Susan – Yesz, it szeemsz to me that your name would have at least a szufficiency of sz szounds. Zoundsz! Odd that your parents chose ‘Susan’, perhaps. You raise an interesting point. I wonder whether there’s any correlation between difficult/embarrassing maiden names and a woman’s decision to change her name on marrying? Of course, guys don’t have that option, they just have to szuck it up. Glad that you found Mr. (W)Right.

  4. Judith says:

    My noticing is that when I pick up holds at the library I actually have to read the name slip, thanks to central Africans and central Europeans. Once upon a time almost every hold filed under U was mine. Canada could have a most interesting survey of last names.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Judith – Boy, now there’s a measurable difference from your childhood or young adulthood, eh? “There are more ‘Us’ among us”, as it were – it sounds like the start of a science fiction story. Of course, you might find some interesting books that way, too.

  5. Carla says:

    I liked Susan’s word – delightful indeed!! You manage to address topics that I’d never even considered Isabel!! Just one question – why is Google a he? (and I know that you have an answer for this :).

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Carla – Beats me why Google is male. I’d never needed a pronoun before but that slight flakiness and markedly idiosyncratic behaviour that characterizes Google meant that ‘it’ was off the table, and ‘she’ didn’t seem right somehow.

  6. Alison Uhrbach says:

    I went the opposite direction when I got married. From a very strong and simple “Rogers” to an often mispronounced and inevitably misspelled “Uhrbach”. The irony of it all is that my husbands grandfather CHANGED his surname, from an easy but far too common in Denmark, Jensen , to the Uhrbach (spelled in Denmark as Uhrback). I learned to check under “e” for my early Sears orders, and it restricted the choosing of our children’s names to something that could easily both be pronounced and spelled.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Alison – Moving from a simple name to one that requires spelling, every time, can be disconcerting. (I seem to remember having done that on my first marriage – from Gibson to Taschuk.) Imagine doing that on purpose – your Jensen/Uhrback story! But of course, in context, the Uhrback was likely just different enough to be distinctive yet not so different as to require spelling assistance. Not to mention that we have way more documentation in our lives than our grandparents did in theirs. I’ve even seen my grandfather’s passport with both their pictures in it – a studio shot that looks like an anniversary portrait more than the mug shots we have today. The passport was in his name – & wife! Talk about your minimalist approach.

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