What is the most popular surname in your country of origin?

Thanks to Lisetta Shah, my former colleague and former student, for this link to maps and explanations of the most popular last name in every country.

Check it out! Some of it will come as a surprise to you, some of it won’t. The question, of course, is whether all the information is accurate. The information on the site, as suggested in my opening sentence above, can be thought of as dividing itself into two different sources of possible (in)accuracy:

  • deciding which surname is most common in a given country (and its frequency)
  • deciding its meaning/origin.

The accuracy of the first datum is relatively easy to determine, as long as reliable information is available. Surely it’s not reliable in certain countries, but I have no way to determine that in any particular case. The last thing I want to do is make guesses based on anecdotal evidence, though it’s hard to resist in some cases. My best (but unconvincing) evidence comes from four decades of teaching, where I have taught a great many students of Korean and Indian heritage, to name two obvious cases. That admittedly non-random sample leads me to question the claim that 25% of Koreans are named Kim, since my experience shows closer to 50%, at least among Korean-Americans. And I’m certainly skeptical that Devi is the most common surname in India, since I have not taught a single student with that name. But maybe people named Devi don’t emigrate to Massachusetts. I’m also very skeptical of Ivanova for Russia. And is Borg really the most popular Maltese name, not Buttigieg? Of course for the vast majority of countries I have no evidence at all, anecdotal or otherwise. So just take the Matador website with a grain of salt as far as this particular segment of their fascinating data is concerned.

Meaning and origin are a different issue, as those can’t be determined from government data. So how do we research where a name comes from? As a linguist I have some knowledge of name origins, and it’s certainly possible to find reliable (and unreliable) sites by googling “origin of Flintstone” or whatever, so it’s not just a matter of guessing. The explanations on the Matador site for names that I know something about all ring true, so I have reason to expect that most of the others are correct as well. Perhaps all are. In any case, this is a great compilation with some expected and some surprising information. The maps are also very helpful; I don’t say that just because I love maps, but also because they enable a 50,000-foot overview of the situation. (But how did they decide that all of Turkey is in Europe whereas all of Russia is in Asia?)


Categories: Linguistics