National Surnames

I received a query about surnames that were the same as nations. An example might be Captain America, if indeed his first names was actually Captain and his surname was actually America instead of a pseudonym for Steve Rogers, and I guess while we’re at it, if he wasn’t a fictional character in a comic book. Maybe his surname would have to be "United States of America" if we wanted complete accuracy. Anyway, don’t read too much into the example. It’s intended merely to get the point across. Hopefully you now understand the question being asked.

It’s an interesting notion. Perhaps it aligns loosely with general genealogical origins of various peoples too. I turned to the United States Census Bureau’s "Frequently Occurring Surnames from Census 2000." I downloaded the file of surnames occurring 100 or more times.

On a bit of a tangent, naturally I searched for my relatively rare non-geography surname and found it tied for 76,946th place, shared by 232 people along with other obscure surnames such as Bottles, But, Coma, Crummy, Fangmann, Java, Junck, Octave and Tar. Zusi falls at the bottom of the list in case you were wondering, with 100 occurrences and tied for 150,436th place.

Certainly other sources could have been consulted to provide a more international point of view, however I had neither easy access to those sources nor did I want to stitch together a bunch of files. Also I figured the U.S. might serve as a decent proxy at least for the English-speaking world due to it’s large population and immigrant-heavy background. Others should feel free to build upon the data if so inclined.

I looked for every nation and territory listed in the CIA World Factbook. I searched for partial matches like Hong and Kong individually too. I also sought demonyms or gentilics, the names of groups of peoples or the languages they use, such as Russian for Russia. The results are all compiled in a public spreadsheet that everyone should be able to view.

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Saint Martin does best if partial matches are acceptable. Martin is the 17th most common surname in the United States with 672,711 instances in the 2000 Census. I have two quibbles: Saint Martin isn’t a standalone nation (as much as I enjoyed my visit) and it doesn’t carry the same weight as a complete match. King, in spite of all of the various Kingdoms including the UK, seems a little bogus too. Next comes the demonym Scott, followed by Cook for the Cook Islands in free association with New Zealand (named for Captain Cook!). These all lead me to believe that the cleanest, most completely unambiguous and frequent nationalist surname is Jordan.

One should not conclude that Michael Jordan or any of the 197,212 Jordans are necessarily Jordanian. However the surname and the nation do have a common root, an Aramaic/Hebrew word Yarden, “to descend.”

The River Jordan provides a name to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and likely inspires the surname due to its religious significance. Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist in the River Jordan. Its importance is further emphasized by the biblical prominence of the Sea of Galilee, which the River Jordan flows into and out of along its watercourse.

Other candidates follow along further down the list. Holland might be a possibility although it’s just a portion of the Netherlands even though it’s often used synonymously. A couple of great demonyms also appear in this range, the surnames French and English. Let’s set all of those aside.

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The second best exact match also demonstrates biblical roots: King Solomon, son of David. Solomon was described as acquiring immense wealth in shipments from a faraway land called Ophir. Many people over the centuries speculated about the geographic placement of Ophir. The Spanish navigator Álvaro de Mendaña de Neira offered his opinion when he stumbled upon a group of island in the South Pacific and named them after Solomon in 1568. Solomon was the 726th most common surname in the United States with 42,839 occurrences. I am sure there are famous people with the surname Solomon although I can’t think of any off the top of my head.

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Third place goes to something non-biblical although still religious in a sense: Ireland. "The modern Irish Éire evolved from the Old Irish word Ériu, which was the name of a Gaelic goddess." I think it’s probably safe to assume that the surname Ireland is more accurately a reflection of the United States’ immigrant roots unlike the other examples where the surname and the nation evolved separately from a common root. There were 14,168 Irelands in the United States including Kathy Ireland, the former Sports Illustrated swimsuit model.

Let’s take a quick look at racial and Hispanic origin classifications. I’m sure there aren’t any minefields there, right? Even the Census Bureau walked delicately through the topic in its Explanation of Race and Hispanic Origin Categories that accompanied the 2000 Census:

The race and Hispanic origin categories used by the Census Bureau are mandated by Office of Management and Budget Directive No. 15, which requires all federal record keeping and data presentation to use four race categories (White, Black, American Indian and Alaska Native, Asian and Pacific Islander) and two ethnicity categories (Hispanic, non-Hispanic). These classifications are not intended to be scientific in nature, but are designed to promote consistency in federal record keeping and data presentation.

I will follow the classifications designated in the 2000 Census since I am using its data source with specifically-named fields as mandated by the US government at the point in time of the survey. I know that other name(s) may be preferable in other contexts so please don’t feel you need to leave a comment with a correction. The Census Bureau seems to be saying the same thing in their note.

The highest percentage surname instances by race and Hispanic origin categories, discarding partial matches and demonyms are as follows:

  • 99.67% of people with the surname Romania were white. Swede tied the percentage although that’s a demonym.
  • 93.27% of people with the surname Senegal were black.
  • No nationalist surname correlated closely with American Indian and Alaska Native populations. 53.78% of people with the demonym surname Mexican were American Indian and Alaska Native though.
  • 78.55% of people with the surname Austria were Asian and Pacific Islander (Austria?!?). More logically the demonym Thai was 94.67% though.
  • 96+% of people with the surnames Nicaragua, Guatemala and Jamaica were Hispanic.

The only one that surprised me was Austria. It’s hard to understand why the vast majority of people with the surname Austria classified themselves as Asian and Pacific Islander.

I believe I’ll try this experiment next with state names so if this article didn’t interest you feel free to come back in about a week.

4 Replies to “National Surnames”

  1. “Austria”? That’s a piece of cake, and I got it on the first guess. “Austria” is a Filipino surname, one of many imposed by the Spanish. To quote Wikipedia:

    “The Alphabetical Catalog of Surnames (Spanish: Catálogo alfabético de apellidos, Tagalog: Alpabetikong Katalogo ng mga Apelyido or Katitikang Talaan ng mga Pangalang angkan) is a book of surnames published in the Philippines and other islands of Spanish East Indies in the mid-19th century. This was in response to a Spanish colonial decree establishing the distribution of Spanish family names among the inhabitants of the Philippines who did not have a prior surname.”


  2. I am sure there are famous people with the surname Solomon although I can’t think of any off the top of my head.

    For a sort-of case: the Octomom.
    Her surname, Suleman, is an Arabic version of Solomon.

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