Directional Surname Frequency

On April 20, 2017 · 9 Comments

I spotted South Street in Manly, Iowa as I wrote Even More Manly Places. Ordinarily that wouldn’t generate much attention. For some reason I found it entertaining to see a South with an east and a west. One could go to East South or West South, although apparently nowhere southeast or southwest. Ditto for North Street, and a similar situation for East Street. Oddly, Manly didn’t seem to have a West Street. I’ve run into similar situations like this in plenty of other places and I always smile. I don’t know why I fixated on it more than usual this time.

I’m sure the street names all came from their geographic alignment throughout town. However, each of those could be surnames too, theoretically although not likely. I went completely down a tangent and started thinking about that possibility anyway, way too much.


Fortunately the United States Census Bureau published a file that offered hours, well minutes, of entertainment. Doesn’t everybody love leafing through a table of Frequently Occurring Surnames from the 2010 Census? Then I checked the etymology of directional surnames. They all seemed to relate to ancestors who lived in a particular direction away from a larger town or region. People named West lived to the west. You get the picture.

Frequency variations definitely existed.

  • West seemed particularly popular. It ranked as the 125th most frequent surname in the U.S., with nearly two hundred thousand instances. Variations trailed from there. Westerman ranked 6,620, Westman ranked 11,257 and Western ranked 11,395.
  • Next in popularity, and much farther down the list came North. It ranked 1,766th, with about twenty thousand people. Northern ranked 8,981.
  • East followed in 2,843rd place with about twelve thousand people. However the variation Eastman actually scored higher, ranking 2,162. Easterly trailed with a rank of 12,593
  • South fell at the back of the pack at 3,231, and eleven thousand people. Southern ranked 4,587 and Southward ranked at 23,120. Southward presented a bit of an anomaly. Every other directional surname aligned almost exactly with people who identified as white. By contrast, about a third of the people named Southward identified as African-American.

Then I hoped to find a place for each direction, named for an actual person with that surname rather than its geographic position. I already discussed the wonderful North, South Carolina in North AND South so I set north aside. I didn’t find a South anywhere, although that didn’t surprise me given the frequency of the surname. That left West and East.

More West

Czech Stop, West, TX
Czech Stop, West, TX. Photo by Angie Six on Flickr (cc)

I created a little game around the West surname a few years ago. That reflected its overall popularity. This time I searched for an actual West and I found it in Texas. The name could be confusing. West, Texas (the city) was not the same at West Texas (the region). In fact West, along Interstate 35 between Dallas/Ft. Worth and Waco, probably fell a little bit to the east of the West Texas region by most interpretations. Everyone seemed to have a different definition of West Texas. That didn’t help.

According to the City of West,

The Katy Railroad was laid between Hillsboro and Waco in the fall of 1881. The path of the railroad cut through land owned by Thomas West. Czech immigrants came to the area purchasing the rich lands to farm and start a fresh life in the new world. They also opened businesses sharing their European culture. By the 1890’s the Czech businesses flourished in West.

That legacy of Czech immigration still existed in West. Businesses such as the Czech Stop and Little Czech Bakery (map) combined both cultures and offered kolaches and barbecue. Kolaches, I learned, were a type of fruit pastry brought to the area by those immigrants. Residents also emphasized their cultural heritage each Labor Day with a Czech polka festival called Westfest.


Easton Neston east side 21 July 1985
Easton Neston east side on Wikimedia Commons (cc)

I couldn’t find a town of East, however I remembered a town on Maryland’s eastern shore called Easton. Unfortunately the name derived from its position east of St. Michaels. Oh well.

Other Eastons existed. Maybe that offered hope. I pulled a few threads on the history of Easton, Pennsylvania (map) and I found an intriguing if convoluted story. Thomas Penn, son of William Penn who founded Pennsylvania, married Juliana Fermor in 1751. The next year a growing town in Pennsylvania needed a name so Penn suggested Easton. Fermor grew up on an estate owned by her father, the 1st Earl of Pomfret, called Easton Neston in Northampton, England (map). The newly established town in Pennsylvania became Easton, in the newly established county of Northampton. That worked out nicely. Problem solved.

However it created another mystery in my mind. Easton Neston seemed to be a rather unusual name for an estate. Actually, it simply borrowed the name from a local church parish, which in turn borrowed the name from a town that existed there for more than a millennium. The town faded away over time although the parish remained, as did the estate. The only reference to its etymology seemed unreliable although I’ll still provide it: "Easton Neston in Northamptonshire gets its name from Old English Eadstanestun ‘settlement of Eadstan’, a personal name composed of the elements ead ‘prosperity’, ‘riches’ + stan ‘stone’."

It sounded good enough to me.

National Surnames

On November 18, 2012 · 4 Comments

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.

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