Quiz: The Meanings & Origins of 8 Common Last Names

Family History
2 July 2021
by Ancestry® Team

The origins and meanings of many last names are fascinating. Can you guess the sometimes surprising facts behind these common* last names?

Don’t forget, you can click on “Show hint” if you get stumped.

1. What is the meaning of the last name Smith?

a pair of images showing a smith working with metal in their workshop, to illustrate the origins of the surname Smith
Sometimes last names are related to occupation, to the work someone did.
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The origin of Smith is English: an occupational name for a worker in metal, from Middle English smith (Old English smið, probably a derivative of smitan ‘to strike, hammer’). Metal-working was one of the earliest occupations for which specialist skills were required, and its importance ensured that this term and its equivalents were perhaps the most widespread of all occupational surnames in Europe.

2. In addition to being a common English surname, the name Williams was also very common in____?

Many street signs in this country are written in English and Welsh.
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Williams is an English patronymic from William. It's also very common in Wales.

3. Which of these last names is the 6th most common last name in the U.S. according to 2010 U.S. Census Bureau data?

a chalkboard showing a list of 6 of the most common last names in the U.S. as of 2010, with the 6th name represented by question marks
This last name is common in Spain and Portugal and is found in medieval records in the Latin form Garsea.
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According to the 2010 U.S. Census Bureau stats, Garcia is the 6th most-common U.S. last name, after Jones.

4. The English and Scottish last name Miller is related to all of the following except:

a picture of a windmill in the countryside, where a miller may have worked
"Miller" has other modern-day European language equivalents such as the French Moulin, as well as Old Norse mylnari.
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The Old Norse for miller is mylnari. In Italian, Miller is Molinaro. At its origins, the surname Miller is English and Scottish and is an occupational name for a miller.

5. All of the following are true of the last name Nguyen except which false answer below?

Nguyen was the family name of a major royal dynasty.
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Nguyen is a common Vietnamese last name and was the family name of a major Vietnamese royal dynasty. According to 2010 U.S. Census Bureau data, it was the 38th most-common surname in the U.S.

6. What is the meaning of the last name Cohen?

a collage of images, from left to right showing a baker, a soldier, and a priest, the possible meanings of the surname Cohen
Cohen is related to a vocation whose members were traditionally regarded as part of a hereditary caste descended from Moses' brother Aaron.
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The last name Cohen is of Jewish origins, from Hebrew kohen ‘priest’. Priests are traditionally regarded as members of a hereditary caste descended from Aaron, brother of Moses. See also Kaplan.

7. Which of the following is Not true about the last name Klein?

The occupation of farmer was more common in the 1700s and 1800s than in the 1900s.
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In 1940, "salesman" was the top reported job for men in the U.S. with the last name of Klein. 10% of men named Klein reported working as salesmen. For women with the surname Klein, "stenographer" was the top reported job. 9% of women named Klein reported this job title. Klein is German, Dutch (also de Klein(e)) and Jewish (Ashkenazic): from Middle High German, Dutch, German klein ‘small’, or Yiddish kleyn. This was a nickname for a person of small stature, but is also often found as a distinguishing name for a junior male, usually a son, in names such as Kleinhans and Kleinpeter. This name is common and widespread throughout central and eastern Europe.

8. Which of the following is true of the origins of the last name Brown?

a group of 6 smiling young people representing a bit of the diveristy of the surname brown
Descriptive last names, like Brown, referred to physical features.
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The English, Scottish, and Irish surname Brown was generally a nickname referring to the color of the hair or complexion, Middle English br(o)un, from Old English brun or Old French brun. This word is occasionally found in Old English and Old Norse as a personal name or byname. Brun- was also a Germanic name-forming element.

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*These are 8 of the most common U.S. last names from the list of frequently occurring surnames in the 2010 Census, provided by the United States Census Bureau.