Family names are part of the history of each nation. They contribute to the social contract which binds citizens together in a society. So when we look carefully at the most common surnames in Europe, we approach identities in the way they appear the most real and pure. Did you know that the most frequent family name in Europe is the Spanish surname ‘Garcia’? Did you notice that Polish, Czech and Slovenes share the same most popular last name ‘Novak’ meaning ‘new man’. And last, did you observe that in some Balkan countries, the most common surnames designate actually the neighbor’s nationality? The list bellow is a compilation of the most frequent surnames for each European country.
The most common surname in Portugal is Silva or Da Silva and is also widespread in regions of the former Portuguese Empire in Asia, including India and Sri Lanka. The root word “silva” comes from Latin which means a wood, a forest, a bush or a plantation
In Spain almost 3,5% of the population is called Garcia (1 378 000 people). This surname of pre-roman origin is probably of Basque origin. It was a very common first name in Spanish early medieval. The meaning points to the descriptive adjective ‘the young’. Due to immigration, this is interesting to notice that Garcia is now the 14th most common surname in France.
There are in France almost 240 000 people bearing the surname Martin. The origins of its frequency can be attributed to Saint Martin of Tours, who was the most popular French saint, but the reason is not clear. It can be a late surname connected with children of orphanages, which was never a common first name in the Middle Ages but now appears quite frequently as a surname. Martin can represent charity towards orphans.
As you may know, most Icelanders do not have surnames, but patronymics in that they reflect the immediate father (or mother) of the child and not the historic family lineage. Only about 10% of Icelanders do have surnames which are not patronymic. Since 1925, one cannot adopt a family name unless one explicitly has a legal right to do so through inheritance.
Murphys is the most common and widespread name in Ireland, especially in County Cork. This surname, which means “sea battler,” translated to Gaelic as MacMurchadh (son of Murchadh) and O’Murchadh (descendent of Murchadh), is a derivation of the first name of Murchadh or Murragh. O’Murchadh families lived in Wexford, Roscommon and Cork, in which county it is now most common, with the MacMurchadhs of the Sligo and Tyrone area responsible for most of the Murphys in Ulster. The name was first anglicized to MacMurphy and then to Murphy in the early 19th century.
In England, 1,26% of the population is named Smith. The name originally derives from smið or smiþ, the Old English term meaning one who works in metal related to the word smitan, the Old English form of smite, which also meant strike. During the World Wars, many German Americans Anglicised the common and equivalent German surname Schmidt to Smith to avoid discrimination.
The most prevalent Norwegian Family name is Hansen, with around 55 000 person bearing this name in the country. It literally means ‘son of Hans’with many spelling variations such as Hanssen, which are also quite common.
In Sweden, the first 18 most common surnames end with ‘-sson’. Johansson is a patronymic family name meaning ‘son of Johan’ and is the surname of more than 265 000 people. It is the most common Swedish family name, followed by Andersson.
0,43% of the population in Finland is called Korhonen, which makes approximatively 23 500 people. It means “small deaf” and was the name of famous sportsmen, politicians and artists.
Meaning the son of Jens, this Family name is nowadays used as a generic surname for both men and women. The prefix Jens- is the most common Danish version of the biblical Ioanne Jensen is the most common surname in Denmark where it is shared by about 5% (288,050 people as of 1 January 2007) of the population. Since 1 January 2001 the number of people in Denmark with the surname Jensen has been reduced from 312,396 as people have changed to more unique surnames.
Almost 86 500 people in Netherlands bear the name De Jong, which represents 0.53% of the population. De Jong means the ‘young one’. The De-jong family name has a rich history which extends back many generations. Many people bear this name, including many important historical figures.
The most prevalent Belgian surname is Peeters with 32 700 people bearing this name. This is specially the most common name in Flanders but only the 67th name in Wallonia and the second name in for the city of Brussels after Janssens. Peeters is also a patronymic surname meaning ‘son of Peter’. The given name Peter is derived from the Greek “petros” meaning “stone.”
Germany & Switzerland
The German word Müller means ‘miller’ as a profession. It is the most common family surname in Germany and Switzerland, the fifth most common surname in Austria. In Germany alone there are more than 320 000 ‘Müller’ in the phonebook (1.5%). In addition there are about 40 000 people bearing variation of this name. According to Jürgen Udolph there are about 700 000 German named Müller.
Rossi is the most prevalent surname in Italy. Due to Italian emigration, it is also very common in other countries, including the United States, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile and France. Rossi is the plural of Rosso (meaning red or red-haired in Italian) although it is argued the surname derives from another source. Some variations derived from regional traditions and dialects. Sourthern names commonly end in “o” whereas Northern names commonly end in “i”.
This is quite impressive, but in Malta 3,3% of the population has the same surname. It represents 13 200 Maltese. Many people bear this name on the Island, including many important artists and politicians.
The most common surname in Austria shared by 0,4% of the population is a surname from Bavaria, referring to a person from a pit, mine or depression.
Novák, Novak or Nowak is a surname in a number of Slavic languages. In Czech Republic almost 70 000 people share this surname. The name is derived from the Slavic word for “new” (nový in Czech), meaning something similar to “new man”, “newcomer” or “stranger” in English. The name was often given to someone who came to a new city, or a convert to Christianity.
The most prevalent surname in Slovakia is Horvath which indicates that the person’s ancestors were from Croatia. Many Croats came to Slovakia over the last centuries. Some did not have last names or, more probably, their last names were very unpractical for local folks, so he was given a last name Horvath, which actually may have been used as an alias in the beginning. The same situation we have with names like Polak, Cech, Italian, Grek.
As in Czech Republic, the most common family name in Poland means ‘new man’ and 203,506 people carry it. The archaic feminine version of the Polish version is Nowakowa and its plural Nowakowie. In that country, Nowakowski, Nowacki, and Nowakiewicz developed as well. There are two noble Nowak lines of Polish origin: Bohemian barones from 1660, in Silesia from the 15th century, (Anatol Nowak, archbishop of Wrocław, died in 1456) and in Masovia known from 1750, Antoni and Józef Nowak—Lt Generals of Polish Army in Napoleon’s Campaign.
Kazlauskas is the most common surname in Lithuania. Among the most prominent Kazlauskas, we find Charles Kazlauskas (b. 1982), an american association football player of Lithuanian descent, Jonas Kazlauskas (b. 1954), a Lithuanian professional basketball coach and player and Valdas Kazlauskas (b. 1958), a Lithuanian racewalker.
Bērziņš is the first family name to be carried out in Latvia. The name derives from the Latvian word “bçrzs” which means “birch tree”, with the “iòð” originally being a diminutive suffix used to form patronymics but finally having become a simple surname ending. There were a lot of birch trees in Latvia in the early 1800s when laws were enacted requiring that peasants (serfs) be given surnames and so lots of men were given that name.
Almost 7 000 Estonians bear the family name of Ivanov. The surname derived from the first name Ivan (equivalent to John, and Ivan”-ov” meaning “John’s/Ivan’s” making the name effectively equivalent to Johns/Ivans).
In Belarus and most of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, surnames first appeared during the late Middle Ages. They initially denoted the differences between various people living in the same town or village and bearing the same name.
The most commun family name in Ukraine seems to be Ivashchenko. There is not many explanation on its origin and why it is well-spread.
Romania & Moldova
The most popular surname in Romania is Popa and is carried out by 192 000 people in the country. It means ‘priest’. Famous persons named Popa include a painter, a politician, a playwright, a guitarist and a gymnast.
235 400 people bear the name Nagy in Hungary. It means ‘large’ or ‘tall’. Hungarian surnames, just like in other countries, often refer to a profession such as Smith, Tailor or Miller. But in Hungary it is also common to have countries as a surname for example Német (German), Horváth (Croat) or Tóth (Slovak) which obviously comes from the former great Hungary when parts of surrounding countries belonged to Hungary.
There are approximatively 12 000 persons in Slovenia named Novak. There are however significant variations between regions: it’s very common in central Slovenia (in the regions around Ljubljana and Celje), as well as in parts of southern Slovenia and eastern Slovenia (Lower Carniola, Prekmurje). It’s much less common in northern and western Slovenia; in the Goriška region on the border with Italy, it is quite rare.
Horvat is the most frequentsurname in Croatia. The surname originates from Croatia, Horvat being the older version of the word Hrvat, a term used to describe a Croat. Croats with surname Horvat live almost exclusively in kajkavian speaking region. Apart from them, there is a certain number of ethnic Serbs with surname Horvat inside Baranja region of Croatia.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Hodžić is mainly a Bosniak surname and derived from the Persian title Khawaja. It means Lord or Master, the title is also closely related to other terms in Sufism. Originally an honorific, it later became common as a surname. The spellings Hodja, Hodža (Slovak), Hoca (Turkish), Hodžić (Bosnian), Hotzakis (Greek),Hoxha (Albanian) and Al-Khawaja are also found.
Petrović is a Slavic last name, found in countries with Slavic populations. This surname or last name is not tied to any nationality. It is normal Slavic surname deriving from Petar, which is equivalent to Peter in English. The part ov designates possession: Petrov means Peter’s. The suffix ić is a diminutive designation, or descendant designation. So, the last name can be translated as Peter’s son, equivalent to the English last name of Peterson.
In 1944, the Yugoslav Communist Party introduced a plan to give all Macedonian surnames the suffix -ski (feminine -ska), allegedly to weaken their sense of identity. If someone refused to change their name, they were not entitled to any benefits from Socialist Macedonia. Many accepted this in order to conform to the new ideology but others, in particular the communists, were willing to risk imprisonment and even execution in order to retain their own ethnic identity.
Just as in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Hoxha, pronounced Hodja is an Albanian surname derived from the title Persian title Khawaja. It could refer in Albania to famous footballers and politicians.
Dimitrov is a surname that occurs both in Bulgaria and the Republic of Macedonia. In Bulgaria, we count among famous people bearing this name an historian, many politicians, a tennis player, a footballer and a painter.
Papadopoulos (in Greek, Παπαδόπουλος) is the most common Greek surname. It is used in Greece, Cyprus and countries of the Greek diaspora as well, such as the USA, United Kingdom, Australia and Scandinavian countries. It means “son of a priest“. Its female version is Papadopoulou.
And last, the most prevalent Turkish surname is simply Öztürk, which means ‘pure Turk’. In the history, where ‘turkification’ needed to be pursued at a more aggressive pace and intensity, such as in cosmopolitan Istanbul or in the eastern provinces, last names including the term ‘Turk’ (Türk) or even ‘pure turk’(Öztürk) were imposed on non-Turks.
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