Skip to main content

Updated February 20, 2024

Exploring your family tree is a fascinating adventure. Our family names symbolize relationships, connections, and a personal history that goes back centuries.

Do you have an Irish last name or a unique French surname? Maybe Jewish last name? Find out the meaning and history behind your last name here.

Last Names From Around the World

As people of different heritages, traditions, and cultures are spread across the globe, so too are surnames. From Irish surnames, German surnames, Scottish surnames, Indian surnames, and more, navigate last names by their country of origin by using the list above, and discover surnames from different nationalities! But, before we begin, what are some of the most popular ethnic last names by country?

  1. Chinese Last Names: Wang, Li, Zhang, Liu, Chen.
  2. French Last Names: Martin, Bernard, Dubois, Thomas, Robert.
  3. German Last Names: Müller, Schmidt, Schneider, Fischer, Weber.
  4. Greek Surnames: Papadopoulos, Papadakis, Galanis, Georgiou, Demetriou.
  5. Indian Last Names: Patel, Kumar, Singh, Sharma, Gupta.
  6. Irish Last Names: Murphy, Kelly, O'Sullivan, Walsh, Smith.
  7. Italian Last Names: Rossi, Russo, Ferrari, Esposito, Bianchi.
  8. Japanese Last Names: Satō, Suzuki, Takahashi, Tanaka, Watanabe.
  9. Jewish Last Names: Cohen, Levy, Goldberg, Friedman, Schwartz.
  10. Kenyan Last Names: Wangari, Ali, Abdi, Hassan, Juma.
  11. Mexican Last Names: Hernández, García, Martínez, González, Pérez.
  12. Nigerian Last Names: Obi, Bello, Mohammed, Okeke, Okoro.
  13. Scottish Last Names: Smith, Brown, Wilson, Campbell, Stewart.
  14. Spanish Last Names: García, Rodríguez, González, Fernández, López.
  15. Vietnamese Last Names: Nguyen, Tran, Le, Pham, Huynh.

Where Do Last Names Come From? 

It may not seem like it, but the use of last names is a relatively recent practice in the course of human history. The Chinese were some of the first people to use surnames. Over three thousand years ago, people in China began inheriting family names in order to take a more accurate census. 

For most small villages and towns, last names weren't needed, as people mainly knew who everyone was. However, the use of surnames grew more popular as populations grew and people began to travel and move often. 

Last names didn't become common in Europe until at least the Middle Ages. These surnames were usually designated based on someone's family history, characteristics, occupation, or place of origin.

Names by Country of Origin

Surname Meanings: History and Etymology

We never really think about our last names, until it’s time to change them (or keep them!) for marriage or until we have children of our own and we need to come up with some first names that work! Knowing the meaning and origin of your surname can help you find a good fit for your baby’s name, whether you’d like to match the ancestry of the two names, or you’re looking for a first name meaning that complements your last name.

Patronymic Names

Some of the most common surnames are patronymic names, passed down from the father's name or another male ancestor in the family. These names indicate direct descendants. To show family lineage in English, the suffix "-son" or "-sen" is added after the given name of the father or grandfather.  For example, someone with the surname Johnson is literally translated to "son of John."

Descriptive Names

Since surnames were introduced in order to distinguish people from one another and create a unique identity, many common surnames were based on someone's physical traits or appearance. For example, popular Italian surnames originate from describing how someone looks. For example, the last name Rossi describes someone with red hair. While the last name Bassetti translates to a person who is short or small. 

Occupational Names

Many surname origins throughout history were directly connected to someone's job or position in society. Common English surnames like Miller or Smith are obviously occupational. If you have one of these surnames, your ancestors were likely millers or blacksmiths. Similarly, many German names are based on professions. For example, Fischer comes from "fisherman" and the last name Weber comes from the word for "weaver." 

Topographic Names

Topographic or geographical names are derived from place names, towns, and landscapes. For example, Old English surnames often combined landmarks with the prefix "At- or Atten-" meaning "at the/by the." So for example, the surname meaning of Adwell is literally someone "at the well." 

Similarly, Polish surnames very often include the suffix "-owski" after a specific place name to show the connection. The common Polish last name Baczewski indicates someone from the town of Bacze. 

If you’re not sure of the origins of your surname, it’s time to do some research into your family history. You don't need to be a genealogist in order to discover your roots. You can start here!

Does Your Last Name Tell Your Ethnicity?

While a person's last name can often provide some clues about their ethnicity or family history, it is not a definitive or comprehensive indicator of someone's ethnic background.

It's important to note that due to factors like migration, intermarriage, name changes, and cultural assimilation, a person's last name might not accurately reflect their current ethnicity or heritage. Additionally, many people now have diverse, multi-ethnic backgrounds that cannot be indicated by a single surname.

See also: First names by country of origin

Tara Gunn

About Tara

Hailing from Canada, Tara is a graduate of Scotland's University of St. Andrews in creative… Read more

Join the Family

Your partner in parenting from baby name inspiration to college planning.