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What’s in a Surname? A Clue to U.S. Diversity

Censuses reveal which surnames are proliferating and which are waning in the United States, and what these changes imply.


You can often guess someone’s country or ancestry by their last name. The United States and the United Kingdom both have a lot of Smiths. Sweden has Johanssons; Poland, Nowaks; China, Wangs; India, Singhs; and Vietnam, Nguyens.

Censuses, even more than phone books, reveal how common a surname is. Looking across several censuses shows which family names are proliferating and which are waning.

The U.S. Census Bureau has just tabulated all the names it found in 2010. Smith, Johnson, Williams and Brown still top the list, as they did in 1990 and 2000. But Hispanic names are showing up too on recent lists of most-prevalent names in the U.S.

Back in 1990, there were no Hispanic names in the top 15. Now there are six, led by Garcia.

The diversity that characterizes the United States is not just fueled by Hispanic Americans. Some 162,000 surnames showed up 100 times or more. Among the fastest-growing since the turn of the century: Zhang, Li, Khan, Vasquez, Wang, Singh, Chen and Patel.

Can you guess the ancestry of these Americans?
 

 

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