This was a question at last night's pub quiz; the quiz master gave us two of the most popular names, and asked for the three others. We only got one of them right.
Numbers are based on the 2000 Census, and it will be interesting to see what changes after this year's count. The 2000 Census included two Hispanic surnames in the top ten for the first time — Garcia, at #8, and Rodriguez, at #9. These five, though, have been in the top ten for a long time.
1. Smith. Almost 2.4 million Americans had the last name "Smith" in 2000, outranking the #2 name by more than half a million people. It was #1 in 1990, too. It is Anglo-Saxon in origin, and is an occupational surname, first belonging to people who worked with metal.
2. Johnson. 1.86 million. A patronymic, meaning it came from the father's name. It's most commonly English, but can come from almost anywhere in northern Europe; spelling variations such as Janssen and Johanssen didn't always make it through immigration. In Gaelic, it's MacShane, and in Welsh, it's Jones. Lots of Johns having lots of children, many years ago.
3. Williams. Another patronymic, "Williams" has roots in Old French, Belgic, and a German dialect of Old French. Its root word means "helmet," and "William" or "Wilhelm" signifies a resolute protector. I have never met a William Williams, but if my surname were Williams, I'd be tempted. 1.5 million Americans had this surname in 2000.
4. Brown. 1.38 million in 2000. A descriptive surname, the kind we used in third grade to distinguish between, say, blonde Karen and red-haired Karen. It too can come from almost anywhere in northern Europe, as the word for "Brown" is similar in English, French, German, Swedish, Norwegian, Dutch . . .
5. Jones. The Welsh form of "Johnson" was almost as common as Brown, with 1.36 million Americans bearing this name in 2000. "Jones" has become such an archetypal American name that we worry about keeping up with them, and it's become a standard name for any generic American family. It begs the question, why don't we hear more about how the Welsh conquered the world?
For the record, "Lamb" ranked 513 in the 2000 Census, with 58,555 Americans counted with that name. "McLaughlin," my mother's maiden name, was #392, belonging to 73,128 people. I'm probably related to most of them.