Most cultures use a system of passing last names down in a legally maintained method that means you can trace your lineage back for generations. The origin points of many common last names can be on the nose, referring to personal characteristics, patronage, estate, occupation, geography, or just common geographic features.

But even common surnames may have confusing or convoluted origins. Here are nine of the most common last names and where some experts think they came from.


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This surname of Portuguese and Spanish origin became common in the 15th century. Hernandez is a patronymic name in origin, which means it is a reference to a male ancestor, such as a father, grand father or someone even farther back in your lineage. Two common meanings associated with Hernandez are “son of Hernan” and “son of the traveler.”


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Muller is the most popular last name in Germany and Switzerland and the fifth most popular last name in Austria. Muller means “miller,” as in the profession, and is the likely point of origin for the surname. In fact, there are many Muller family crests and insignias that feature windmills or watermills in their iconography. In addition, the American version of the name is spelled Miller.


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Last names are a relatively new practice for Vietnamese culture. Family names were patronymic and came first in Vietnamese culture. Last names were probably introduced by Chinese imperialists for the purposes of keeping better track of the citizens they were taxing. This means that Nguyen, which is the last name of about 30 to 40 percent of people of Vietnamese descent, is likely of Chinese origin.


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Smith is the most popular last name in the United Kingdom, Australia, the United States, and New Zealand and second most popular last name in Canada. In the 2000 United States census, 2,376,206 people reported their last name as Smith. The name refers to metalsmithing and in Olde English “smith” meant “one who works with metal.” The first recorded instance of the name was in County Durham, England, in 975.


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The most common surname among Indians living in America or the United Kingdom, Patel comes from the Gujarti language and is a Parsi and Hindu name. Patel means either “landowner” or “village headman.” The name is not common in India, however, indicating that a specific sect of agricultural specialists may have emigrated in large numbers at some point.


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One of the most common surnames in the world, Wang means “king” or “monarch” when translated into English. About 92 million people in the mainland of China have the surname Wang. The point of origin is confused as there were Wang clans in both the Shang and Zhou dynasties. However, the last name was adopted by royal families that fell during the Qing dynasty to hide their identities and shield themselves from assassination attempts.


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The surname Li is one of the most popular in China. The Korean version, Lee, is derived from the same Chinese character and is very common in Korea. The spelling distinction between the two names is often thought to be a result of romanization. If the surnames Li and Lee were counted together, they would be the most common surname in the world.


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A surname of Basque origin, Garcia is the most common last name in Spain, the second most common name in Cuba, and the most common last name in the states of California and Texas. The name has been found in historical records as Garsea and means “bear” or “young.”


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Smirnov is the most common surname in Russia according to the 2002 census data. Smirnov has two forms—Smirnov, which is masculine, and Smirnova, the feminine variety. The name is derived from the Russian word smirnyy, which means “gentle, quiet or still.”

A little bit of research can reveal some interesting facts and statistics about even the most ordinary last names, the patterns they reveal about our society and the history that has shaped it.

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