What’s in a Name? Common Family Names: Their History and Meaning

There are over six million surnames in America, lending credence to the oft-recited “cultural melting pot” cliché. Surprisingly however, one in every 25 Americans is called Smith, Johnson, Williams, Brown, Jones, Miller or Davis. These family names have consistently taken the top seven places in US Census Bureau analysis.

Equally interesting is the rise of Spanish surnames on the Census Bureau’s list between 1990 and 2000. In this time, the number of Hispanics living in America grew by 58%, and two Spanish surnames entered the top 10 most common surnames list, almost certainly for the first time.

But have you ever thought about the origins of these family names? Here’s a look at the top seven, as well as three up-and-coming names that reflect the changing American population.


With 2.4 million people sharing the popular family name, Smith is by far the most common surname in the US. It is an occupational surname for someone who works with metal, originally smió in Old English, which itself is thought to derive from smitan, meaning ‘to strike.’ Working with metal was enormously important in medieval times, ensuring that the family name spread quickly. In North America specifically, many Native Americans and slaves adopted the name during colonization and the era of slavery. In addition, many similarly-named immigrants took on the name upon arrival in America; for example, German Schmidt and Dutch De Smedt.


Johnson has remained at No 2 since 1990, with almost 1.9 million Americans bearing the name. It is a patronymic, based on a personal name of a male ancestor. Johnson literally means “son of John.” This family name came to America via England, Scotland and Ireland, but is of Norman origin. In the late 1800’s most Johnsons who emigrated to America were Swedish, followed by English. Like Smith, it has absorbed many other similar sounding names, including the Danish Jorgensen and Swedish Johansson.



With over 1.5million people, Williams has steadily occupied third place for the past few decades. It is a patronymic surname, but there are a few different theories on its origins. One is that it means the son or descendent of Guillaume, the French form of William. Another is that it came directly from the Old French first name. It mainly came to America via Wales, where adding ‘s’ to a name indicates ‘son of.’ Interestingly, the last man killed in the US Civil War was John J Williams on May 13 1865.



Brown moved up one place in the top 10 list between 1990 and 2000, with almost 1.4 million in America. The common surname is English, Scottish and Irish, and began life as a nickname for people with brown hair, or possibly a nickname for someone who wore brown clothing, such as a monk. The Old French and Old English word is ‘brun.’ As an American name, it absorbed a lot of immigrants with similar names, such as the German Braun, French Le Brun and Italian Bruno.


Although it has slipped from fourth to fifth position since 1990, there are still over 1.3 million Joneses to keep up with in North America. Interestingly, the very first documented Jones in America was in Virginia in 1587. It’s a patronymic surname from the Middle English first names John or Jon, but it is a particularly common surname in Wales. In fact, 10% of Welsh people share the name- despite the fact that there is no letter ‘j’ in the Welsh alphabet!



Miller has climbed one place to sixth position since 1990, with over 1.1 million sharing the common family name in America. It is an English and Scottish occupational surname for a grain miller. Another possible origin is from the Irish word ‘maillor’, meaning soldier. Vast numbers of immigrants with similar names took on Miller when they reached the US, including the French Meunier, Dutch Molenaar, Italian Molinaro and German Mueller.


Down one place from sixth to seventh since 1990, there are still over 1 million Davis’ in America. It is another patronymic name from Wales. Saint David is the patron saint of Wales, and the name is spelled Dafydd in Welsh. Strangely, Davis’ almost identical variant barely scrapes into the top 1000 names in America, while the opposite is true in the UK, where Davies is the sixth most common name, and Davis the 54th.



Garcia leapt 10 places from No 18 to No 8 in the decade from 1990, elbowing Wilson out of the top 10 in the process. It is without doubt Spanish and Portuguese, but its origins are hazy. One possibility is that it is a patronymic from the medieval first name, Garcia, Spanish for Gerald. Another possibility is that it originally described someone who came from Garcia in Spain. And the third possibility is that it derived from the Basque word for bear, ‘hartz’. A small number of Garcias came to America in the 1800s, mainly from Spain and Cuba, but there are now more than 850,000.


Between 1990 and 2000, Rodriguez shot up 13 places from No 22 to No 9, and there are now more than 800,000 with this family name in America. It is a Spanish patronymic name coming from Rodrigo, the Spanish form of Roderick. Roderick has two possible origins: the German Roderik, meaning “rich in glory,” and also the Gaelic Rhydderch. In Spanish, the suffix ‘ez’ generally means descendent or son of, while in Portugal ‘es’ is added, for the equivalent Rodrigues.


Just outside the top 10, Martinez jumped eight places from No 19 to No 11 between 1990 and 2000. There are now just under 780,000 Martinez’ in America and many more close derivatives. It is another Spanish patronymic surname, from the first name Martin. Martin comes from the Latin name Martinus, which was a derivative of Mars, the Roman God of War. The first recorded spelling of the name was in Castile, Spain, in 1580, and there are also early records of it in Sicily and Milan.