No one can know when humans first used personal names. The only thing we can be sure of is that when there was a need, names emerged—personal names first, of course. As long as people lived in small enough groups, seldom traveling more than fifteen miles and delivering messages in person, single names were sufficient. But as populations grew, greater distinctions needed to be made.

This receipt for barley shipments contains the signature of the first person in history whose name we know: Kushim, the accountant.

World Names

According legend, Fuxi Feng first gave people names, including family names.

Records of Chinese family names date back at least 3,000 years, and were standardized during the Qin Dynasty. The Amorite and Aramean tribes in Mesopotamia used a combination of patronymic and tribal nisbas nearly 4,000 years ago. Ancient Romans gave their male children three names: a personal name (praenomen), a family name (nomen gentilicium), and a descriptor of their particular branch of the family tree (cognomen).

The Armenian military may have been responsible for reintroducing family names in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. In Europe, last names came into use in the Middle Ages and were well established by the end of the 16th century. According to some sources, the oldest surname known to have been recorded anywhere in Europe was in County Galway, Ireland, in 916: O’Cleirigh (O’Clery), meaning “descended from the clerk/cleric.”

J.N.Hook, author of Family Names, identified four categories that were the source of almost all English and European surnames:

Possibly not the Keeper of the Park my ancestors had in mind…
(a Sagittarius serpentarius at Jurong Bird Park)
  • Place Names:
    • John Hill, John Atwater.
    • Often O’ indicated from, as in Odell or Offield
  • Patronyms (or others based on personal names)
    • John Johnson, John Williams, John Alexander.
    • Often a prefix or ending meaning “son of” or “daughter of” was later dropped
  • Occupational Names
    • John Smith, John Fletcher
    • My family name Parker is of English origin, from Old French meaning “keeper of the park.”
    • Today the most popular of the names derived from occupations is—no surprise here—Smith,
  • Descriptive Names
    • John Long, John Armstrong
    • The family name Brown is thought to have come from an early family member who had brown hair or brown eyes or dressed habitually in brown.

American Names

Robyn Smith runs the fascinating genealogy website ReclaimingKin, specializing in researching slavery and enslaved ancestors.

Enslaved black people before the American Civil War often used only first names, sometimes bestowed by by the slave holder. After Emancipation, bureaucracies required last names, so newly freed blacks chose last names. Often they chose names common at the time, such as the ubiquitous Smith, sometimes the name of the former “master” or the plantation itself. 

According to, Washington being the “blackest name” is a matter of speculation, but it was very common after the Civil War. One possibility is that George Washington’s name was chosen because of his widely-known gesture of freeing his slaves in his will. A project based on the 2000 census counted 163,036 people with the surname Washington; 90% of those identified as Black.

By comparison, in raw numbers, Smith is the whitest last name, although only 70.9% of Smiths identify as white. But by proportion, there are several names over 90%: for example, 94.76% of people named Olson identify as white, as do 94.84% of those named Meyer, 95.15% of Schmidts, 95.35% of Schneiders, and 95.93% of those named Schwartz. Hmmm. Pattern?

Sometimes, names change spelling within families. For example, my maternal grandmother’s family name was Wine or Wyne, depending on how the midwife/doctor chose to spell it!  Sometimes immigrants to the U.S. with “foreign” names ended up with changed spelling for the same reason—i.e., the ignorance of a local school or tax official. And of course, sometimes a person (or branch) of a family chose to shorten or anglicize a name, turning Robertson into Roberts, or Makowski into Makosky.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau (CB), there are at least 151,671 different last names in this country and at least 5,163 different first names in common use. The number of combinations is mind-boggling!

The ten most common last/family names now:
Johnson C Smith University
1936 Women’s Basketball Team
  • Smith
  • Johnson
  • Williams
  • Brown
  • Jones
  • Garcia
  • Miller
  • Davis
  • Rodriguez
  • Martinez

Over the last 100 years, the most common male name was John, closely followed by James. The most common female name was Mary, followed not-so-closely by Patricia (~ half as many). 

Surprise? Not so much. Since 1530, the most popular “full” names in English-speaking countries are John and Mary Smith! John Smith is so common that incudes the following synonyms for that name: average joe, average person, common man, everyman, joe blow, joe doakes, joe sixpack, john q. public, man in the street, mr. nobody, ordinary joe.

Here are the ten rarest last names in the US, as of the 2010 Census (the most recent analysis available). You can go to for more detail about each of these names.

Brett Banasiewicz, a BMX racer
  • Atonal
  • Banasiewicz
  • Guillebeaux
  • Mosheyev
  • Panchak
  • Ragsdill
  • Stawarski
  • Duckstein
  • Bombardo
  • Tuffin

As of the 2020 census, more than 4 million people in the US had unique last names.

FYI, there are 238 in the U.S. actually named John Doe. (Only 18 are named Jane Doe.) By far the most  common use of these names are as place holder names when the actual name is either unknown or secret, especially in legal contexts.

Who would hang that name on a child? Probably the same sort of person who would name a child Ima Hogg (a real woman, daughter of James Hogg, governor of Texas from 1890 to 1894) or Charles Brown, or take a stage name of Candy Barr (as Juanita Dale Slusher did). even reports 4 birth records for Scarlett O’Hara.

My Family’s Names

A woman in my family named Evon has never met another person with her name—and there’s a reason for that: according to the Social Security Administration (SSA) database, there are only 1.05 Evons per 100K. Vivian, however, comes up 35.97 times per 100K.

I’ve known for decades that women in my family have rare (usually middle) names, including Wavalene, Utor, Valeeta, Genilee, Alta, Vinnie…  Most of those names haven’t passed from generation to generation. Not unusual. 

All my life I’ve believed that Vivian means “likes bright and vivid colors.” Writing this blog on names, I found that it is of Latin origin, meaning “lively”—close, but still… The name has stood the test of time since the 1800s. Variations include Vivien, Vivienne, Viviana. And in England Vivian is a man’s name. You can probably name several famous Vivians, including Vivian Leigh, but Campbell, Balakrishnan, Woodward, Fuchs, Galbraith, Dsena, Blake, Anderson, Van Damm, are among famous male Vivians.

So, Vivian is a gender non-specific name. My birth middle name, Jean, turns out to be a feminine version of John. Little did I know. And when I named my daughter Daryl, I didn’t realize the ambiguity until a neighbor asked my new baby’s name (Daryl Jean) and then followed up by asking how much he weighed. And now I’ve learned that Darryl is among the names most likely to be perceived as a black male.  

Bottom line: This blog started broad and funneled down to the personal. I hope something in it is interesting, enlightening, or in some way relevant!


Ioseb “Soso” Dzhugashvili is better known by the name he used as a Bolshevik, “Steel.” The Russian translation is Josef Stalin.
Montbars the Exterminator was the nom de guerre of Daniel Montbars, a French buccaneer.

Nom de guerre is French for “war name.”  

In 1716 France, a war name was mandatory, and in some ways was functionally similar to a dog tag for soldiers today. Soldiers were identified by their first name, family name, and war name. The war name was typically either the hometown or a particular physical or character trait. Examples would be Jean Louis of Paris, or Pierre Renaut the Red Haired One.

Some famous noms de guerre were chosen deliberately to the warlike, violent, or intimidating characteristics of the bearer. Pirates Captain Blackbeard and Montbard the Exterminator are examples of this.

Sometimes the alias replaced the family name.

Simone Segouin used the nom de guerre Nicole Minet when fighting Nazi occupation of France.
Ernesto Guevara was better known to his comrades as “el Che” or Che Guevara.

During Word War II, noms de guerre were adopted by the French Resistance for security, and to protect family members from the enemy.  Today mercenaries, resistance fighters, terrorists, and guerrillas adopt war names for the same reason.

Nom de plume has retained its specific meaning of a writing name that differs from a given name. Over time, the usage of nom de guerre became much more general, such that in ordinary French today, it’s a generic descriptor, like pseudonym.

By now, soldiers and writers are a small minority of people who take different or additional names.  And their reasons for doing so offer great plot points!

Members of a royal family often adopt a public name when they marry or assume the throne. Queen Noor of Jordan was born Lisa Najeeb Halaby.
  • Taking or keeping a professional name different from the family name
  • Personal identity
    • Wanting a less or more ethnic name
    • To fit gender identification
    • Simple dislike of one’s current name: too common, too outlandish, too juvenile, too likely to be embarrassing if mispronounced or misspelled, etc.
  • Marriage
    • Changing a name after divorce
    • Husband taking wife’s name
    • A couple choosing to combine parts of their names or hyphenate the two last names to make a new family name
    • Partners sharing a surname
  • Changing a child’s surname to mother’s, father’s, or adoptive parents’ name
  • Religious reasons
  • Criminal history or association
  • To be more or less closely associated with a famous (or infamous) relative
  • Political reasons
  • Entering witness protection program
Sith Lords took new names upon completing their training, either given by their masters or chosen by the Force. Anakin Skywalker is better known by his Sith title: Darth Vader.

A small sample of well-known people who changed their names. If you don’t know why these people changed names, the info is available on line.

Emilio Estevez deliberately did not share his father’s nom de guerre because, as he said, he “didn’t want to ride into the business as ‘Martin Sheen’s son’.”
Harpo Marx had two name changes. Born Adolph, he changed his first name to to Arthur avoid anti-German in childhood; “Harpo” was bestowed as a nickname by a friend.

Many modern surnames have similar origins, derived from occupations, geographic origins, political or religious affiliations, or personal characteristics. Consider some of the most common family names in the world today.

Malcolm X also adopted a new name twice. He changed his surname from Little to X to signify the loss of his African heritage; after going on pilgrimage to Mecca, he took the Muslim name el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz.
  • Wang (the most common, registered surname in the world) is the Chinese word for “king,” and there are historical records of several families adopting this surname for various reasons.
    • During intra-family arguments, descendants of a disgraced former royal often changed their family name to remind people of their origins.
    • Local custom sometimes meant that the family of whoever was in power at the time all be addressed as “Wang.”
    • Conquerors, usurpers, and invaders might change their family name to “Wang” as a way to validate their claims to the throne after the fact.
    • Entirely unrelated to their Chinese name-sharers, Scandinavian and Germanic families with the surname Wang are more likely to have been associated with a grassy meadow (vangr in Old Norse) or their presumably distinctive cheeks (wangl in Middle German).
  • Singh, the Sanskrit word for “lion” or “hero,” was used by Guru Gobind Singh (born Gobind Rai) to replace family names among all male Sikhs as a way of eliminating the caste system and demonstrating community equality.
  • Nguyễn was a powerful Vietnamese royal dynasty, and many families adopted the name to ally with the rulers.
  • Ahmed means “the highly praised one” and was one of the names of the Prophet Muhammed listed in the Quran. It was adopted by many families originally as a sign of religious devotion or of descending from the Prophet.
  • Devi is both the Sanskrit word for goddess and the mother goddess in the Hindu faith. Many women, especially in rural areas today, adopt Devi as a surname when they marry.
Silent film star Rudolph Valentino was born Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Pierre Filiberto Guglielmi di Valentina d’Antonguella. He changed it when he came to the US in 1913.
  • Many of the most common surnames in the US are the result of emancipation, immigration, or assimilation.
    • Former slaves were often assigned a surname shortly after Emancipation. This was often the name of a former owner, but it might also be a trade, a defining characteristic, a local landmark, a parent’s first name, or any other surname chosen by the individual. According to the 2000 Census, 90% of Americans with the surname Washington are of African descent.
    • Immigrants coming through Ellis Island and Angel Island did not (as myth would have us believe) have their names changed by confused or lazy immigration officials. However, it was not uncommon for recent immigrants to the US to change their surname to one that was easier to spell with the English alphabet or to one less likely to attract anti-immigrant biases.
    • Changing surnames was a means of removing identity and forcing assimilation of people already living in America before Europeans. People were assigned names, often at random, as part of the effort to break up nations and outlaw traditional identification.

Bottom line: Names carry a ton of meaning!