“Europe is so well gardened that it resembles a work of art, a scientific theory, a neat metaphysical system. Man has re-created Europe in his own image.”
Open an old phone book in France, and you will find, if you thumb through to the letter ‘M’, pages and pages of the same family name. You’re looking for a friend called ‘Pierre Martin’? Hard cheese, he’s going to be tough to find. Don’t even try to type ‘Rossi’ in an Italian search engine! You’ll start swearing before you reach page 10… Meanwhile, in Germany, ‘Müller’ is so frequent that you may end up… in a supermarket! Family names are at the heart of the history of each nation: a prime illustration of the social contract which binds people together in a society. So when we look carefully at the most common surnames in Europe, we are looking into the very heart of European identity, so close you can touch it. Did you know, for instance, that the most frequent family name in Europe as a whole is the Spanish surname ‘Garcia’? Have you noticed that Polish, Czech and Slovenes share the same most commun surname ‘Novak’ – which means simply ‘new man’. Also, ever wondered why the most common surnames in some Balkan countries actually designate the neighbour’s nationality? Wonder no more: let’s take our tour around the most frequent family names in Europe.
It may sound a bit cliché… but the most common surname in Portugal is ‘Silva’ or ‘Da Silva’ – deriving from the Latin word for a wood, a forest, a bush or a plantation. This should come as no surprise: Portugal has long been a richly forested nation, a fact which has influenced its culture and folklore. ‘Silva’ is also a widespread surname in regions of the former Portuguese Empire in Asia, such as India and Sri Lanka.
In Spain almost 3.5% of the population is called ‘Garcia‘: that’s around 1,378,000 people. This surname of pre-Roman origin is said to come from the Basque language, being linked to the adjective ‘young’. It was also a very common first name in early medieval Spain. Due to immigration from across the Pyrenees, in fact, ‘Garcia‘ is now also the 14th most common surname in France.
There are in France approximately 240,000 people with the surname ‘Martin‘. This enormous popularity is often attributed to Saint Martin of Tours, who is among the most popular French Saint – there is even a ‘Pain de Saint-Martin‘ to show you how well-liked the guy is in France. The true reasons for Martin’s ubiquity as a surname are not totally clear, but it is believed that it was a surname often given to children in orphanages.
This one’s got us stumped: because Icelanders do not have surnames at all, but rather patronymics reflecting the first name of the immediate father (or mother) of a child, rather than the historic lineage. Yep, it’s a weird but old tradition there. Only about 10% of Icelanders have surnames as understood in the rest of Europe. And there’s a reason for that rarity: since 1925, Icelanders are not allowed to adopt a family name unless they have a good legal reason linked to their inheritance.
‘Murphy‘ is the most common name in Ireland, especially in the county of Cork. This legendary surname, which means “sea battler,” translated to Gaelic as ‘MacMurchadh’ and ‘O’Murchadh‘ (descendent of Murchadh), derives from the first name ‘Murchadh‘ or ‘Murragh‘. The ‘O’Murchadh‘ families used to live in Wexford, Roscommon and Cork. The name was first anglicized to ‘MacMurphy‘ and then to ‘Murphy‘ in the early 19th century.
In the United Kingdom, 1,26% of the population is named ‘Smith‘. The name originally derives from smið or smiþ – an unpronounceable bit of Old English, meaning a metalworker, and the word smitan (the Old English form of smite) which also meant strike. During the World Wars, many German Americans anglicised their German surname of ‘Schmidt’ to ‘Smith’ to avoid discrimination.
The most prevalent Norwegian family name is ‘Hansen‘, of which there are about 55 000 in the country. So many writers share the name ‘Hansen‘, it makes it quite complicated for Norwegians to find their favourite books in libraries – especially ahead of their weird Easter tradition of reading crime books. It literally means ‘son of Hans’, and is also spelled as ‘Hanssen’.
In Sweden, the first 18 most common surnames all 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‘ – the most famous of which being Neo in the Matrix movie. And no! Do not confuse: the fairy tale collector Hans Christian Andersen was Danish and his family name spelled with a ‘e’.
0,43% of the population in Finland is called ‘Korhonen‘, which makes approximatively 23 500 people. In the country of fantastic creatures and monsters, this family name is quite imaginative as it means “small deaf”. There is no real reason why this surname took such deep root…But today it is borne by many famous sportsmen, politicians and artists.
Meaning without surprise the ‘son of Jens’, ‘Jensen‘ is the most common surname in Denmark where it is shared by about 5% of the population (288,050 people). Since 2001, the number of people in Denmark with the surname ‘Jensen‘ started to decline as people changed to more unique surnames. Was it superstition or just religion? The prefix Jens- refers to the biblical name Ioanne in Danish.
Almost 86,500 people in Netherlands bear the name ‘De Jong‘, which represents 0.53% of the population. Just as in Spain with ‘Garcia‘, ‘De Jong‘ means the ‘young one’. The ‘De Jong‘ family name has a rich history which originates back many generations and has been popularised by many important figures in Dutch history.
In the flat country, the most prevalent surname is ‘Peeters‘ with 32,700 owners. This is the most common surname in Flanders but only the 67th name in French-speaking Wallonia and the second name in 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‘ refers to the noble profession of the miller. It is the most common family name in Germany and Switzerland, and the fifth most common surname in Austria. In Germany alone there are more than 320 000 ‘Müller’ in the phonebook (1.5%) – and this is without counting the ‘Müller’ chain of supermarkets. In addition there are about 40 000 people with a variation of this surname. According to Jürgen Udolph there are in total about 700 000 German named ‘Müller‘.
The most common surname in Austria shared by 0,4% of the population is a surname from Bavaria. It is, in one way or another, derived from the root “Grub-”, which refers to things related to digging and in general to holes in the ground. Many sources derive the surname primarily from ‘Grub‘, a place name common in southern Germany and Austria. To refer to someone from a certain place in German, it was a custom to simply add the suffix -er to the name of the place, so, for example, a person from Köln is a Kölner.
‘Rossi‘ is the most common surname in Italy – it even inspired the name of a sweet. 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 this surname derives from another source (come on: how many ginger people have you met in Italy?) Some variations derived from regional traditions and dialects. Sourthern names commonly end with “o”, and northern ones in “i”.
We have a record! In the Land of Honey, 3,3% of the population share the same surname ‘Borg‘ (13,200 people). Even more impressive, 76% of the population – 307,886 people – share the same 100 surnames! The surname ‘Borg‘ could have resulted from the Sicilian town of Burgi, itself perhaps deriving from the Greek ‘pyrgos’. This however would not explain its lack of occurrence in Sicily itself. It is very well known that it has a much wider occurrence in Europe, especially in Sweden and Spain (as ‘Burgia’).
‘Novák‘, ‘Novak‘ or ‘Nowak‘ is a very common surname in a number of Slavic languages. In the 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. It’s always more appreciated than an insult!
The most prevalent surname in Slovakia is ‘Horvath‘ which indicates that the person’s ancestors were… from Croatia! Many Croats have arrived in Slovakia over recent centuries. Some did not have last names or, more probably, their last names were very impractical for local folk to get their tongues around, so they were given the last name ‘Horvath‘: perhaps originally just as a nickname. The same occurred with names like ‘Polak‘, ‘Cech‘ or ‘Grek‘.
As in the Czech Republic, the most common family name in Poland means ‘new man’ and 203,506 people share it. The archaic feminine version of the Polish version is ‘Nowakowa’ and its plural ‘Nowakowie’. Followed shortly after by ‘Nowakowski‘, ‘Nowacki‘, and ‘Nowakiewicz‘ – probably to make sure that no one else could translate them. There are two noble ‘Nowak‘ lines of Polish origin: the Bohemian barons from 1660 (Anatol Nowak, archbishop of Wrocław, died in 1456) and Antoni and Józef Nowak in Masovia known from 1750 — they were Lieutenant Generals in the Polish Army during Napoleon’s Campaign.
‘Kazlauskas‘ is the most common surname in Lithuania. While the name ‘Kazlauskas‘ was probably mostly brought from Poland via migration, there is also a possibility that it was adopted by some Lithuanians who had the word for a goat in their original surname during the era of polonisation. Among the most prominent ‘Kazlauskas‘, we found Charles Kazlauskas (b. 1982), an american football player of Lithuanian descent, Jonas Kazlauskas (b. 1954), a Lithuanian professional basketball coach and player and Valdas Kazlauskas (b. 1958), a Lithuanian racewalker. Lithuanians surely know how to practise sport!
‘Bērziņš‘ is the most shared family name 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 before finally becoming a simple surname ending. There were a lot of birch trees in Latvia in the early 1800s, at the time when laws were enacted requiring that peasants be given surnames: so lots of men just adopted a name that was to hand. Birch trees even inspired one of the most beautiful European fairy tales.
Almost 7,000 Estonians share the family name of ‘Ivanov‘. Not huge: but not bad for such a tiny country. The surname derived from the first name Ivan, with the possessive form ”-ov” making it broadly translatable as ‘Ivans’, or ‘Johns’.
In Belarus and most of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, surnames first appeared during the late Middle Ages. They initially allowed people to differentiate between two people living in the same town or village with the same first name. The surname ‘Zajac‘ comes from Polish ‘zajac’ which means ‘hare’ or the Czech dialect ‘zajac‘, a nickname for a swift runner or a shy person. The surname occasionally appears as ‘Zajonc‘ due to the Polish pronunciation of ą as “on”, however, the vowel is usually rendered as “a” outside Poland, producing ‘Zajac‘.
By the 18th century almost all Ukrainians had family names. Most Ukrainian surnames (and surnames in Slavic languages in general) are formed by adding possessive and other suffixes to given names, place names, professions and other words. The most commun family name in Ukraine is ‘МЕЛЬНИК‘ in the Cyrillic alphabet, rendered as ‘Melnyk‘ in Latin. ‘Melnyk‘ means, as in Germany, the profession of miller, which also exists as ‘Melnik’ in Russia.
Romania - Moldova
The most popular surname in Romania and Moldova is ‘Popa‘. It is shared by over 200,000 people in these countries. It means ‘priest’. There is a famous painter named ‘Popa‘, as well as a politician, a playwright, a guitarist and a gymnast. By the way, the second most common surname in Romanian is… ‘Popescu‘ (meaning the ‘son of Popa’) — this is because ‘-escu’ and ‘-(e)anu’ are the most common name suffixes for Romanian names.
235,400 people share 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). This derives from the time of the House of Habsburg, when these regions belonged to Hungary.
On the sunny side of the Alps, there are approximatively 12,000 people named ‘Novak‘. There are however significant variations between regions: it’s a very common surname 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 less common in northern and western Slovenia and in the Goriška region on the border with Italy, it is quite rare.
Croatians just call themselves… ‘Croats’! ‘Horvat‘ is the most frequent surname in Croatia. It originates from the word ‘Horvat‘ — an older version of the word ‘Hrvat’ used to describe a Croat. Croats with surname ‘Horvat‘ live almost exclusively in the kajkavian speaking region. Apart from them, there is a certain number of ethnic Serbs with surname ‘Horvat‘ living in the Baranja region of Croatia. A very vivid linguistic melting pot!
‘Petrović‘ is a Slavic surname, common in many countries with Slavic populations. It is not tied to any nationality and it derives from ‘Petar’, which is equivalent to Peter in English. Now a bit of logical thinking: 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 ‘Peterson’.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Bosnian are famous for their sense of humour — and it applies to their family names as well! ‘Hodžić‘ is mainly a Bosnian surname and derives from the Persian title ‘Khawaja‘. It means Lord or Master, the title is also closely related to other terms in Sufism. Originally an honorific name, it later became common as a surname. You will find it with different spellings in surnames like ‘Hodja‘, ‘Hodža‘ (Slovak), ‘Hoca‘ (Turkish), ‘Hodžić‘ (Bosnian), ‘Hotzakis‘ (Greek), ‘Hoxha‘ (Albanian) or ‘Al-Khawaja‘.
Just as in Bosnia and Herzegovina, ‘Hoxha‘, pronounced ‘Hodja’, is derived from the title Persian title of ‘Khawaja‘. There was in Albania a famous politician with the name ‘Hoxha‘: Enver Halil Hoxha. He was Albania’s communist head of state from 1944 until his death in 1985. There were even children’s songs celebrating his dict… I mean, leadership.
It sounds like a cliché name for a baddy in a hollywood movie where you would expect conspiracies, spies and apocalyptic events… but it’s not! ‘Dimitrov‘ is a common surname in both Bulgaria and the Republic of Macedonia. In Bulgaria, ‘Dimitrov‘ is not a name for spies, but rather famous politicians, a historian, a tennis player, a footballer and a painter.
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 benefits from Socialist Macedonia. Many accepted this in order to conform to the new ideology but others, in particular political opponents, were willing to risk imprisonment and even execution in order to retain their own ethnic identity.
Greece - Cyprus
The most famous ‘Papadopoulos‘ (in Greek, Παπαδόπουλος) may be the mean Greek character in the adventures of Tintin. But it is actually quite a common Hellenic surname. You will find it in Greece, Cyprus and countries of the Greek diaspora, such as the USA, the United Kingdom, Australia and in the Scandinavian countries. It means “son of a priest” (is it allowed? or is it yet another weird tradition?) and it even has a female version: ‘Papadopoulou‘.
And last but not least, the most prevalent Turkish surname is simply ‘Öztürk‘, which means ‘pure Turk’. In the history, where ‘turkification’ was pursued at an 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. This also led to the creation of many idioms related to Turkey and Turks.