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Now What? Surname Sources
6/1/2001
Why certain surnames are more popular than others.

Q. One thing about surnames has always puzzled me: If people were often named after their occupations, why is Smith the most common name instead of Farmer? A village could usually support only one or two blacksmiths, but had dozens of farmers. Yet Farmer is not even in the top 20. And why is Brown so popular, but there are only a few Greens and Blacks? Red and blue may show up in foreign names, but there aren't any yellows or oranges.

A. The key to surname origins is not just what was most common, but what might have distinguished one family from another. Distinguishing people, after all, was the whole purpose of naming. For example, the smith in a village would stand apart by his trade and thus that would be his "label." Almost every other man would be farming, so it was necessary to distinguish those families by something else. Of course, in later American history, those wishing to assimilate, such as recent immigrants or former slaves, would perpetuate the trend by taking the simplest and most common American names.

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