What’s an American Last Name?

DNAMany students of English choose an “English” name for themselves when they begin to study English. These names are often used in professional settings as well. As far as I know, no one has actually studied how people go about choosing their names, and what reasons they may give. Have you chosen an English-sounding first name? If so, how did you chose it and why?

I was reminded of this issue when I read a recent article in the New York Times, “In U.S. Name Count, Garcias Catching up with the Jones.” It gave the most popular last names in the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau (the U.S. government office which counts people and studies the demographics or characteristics of people in the U.S.). The U.S. is often called a “country of immigrants,” and the last names we have are in some ways related to our immigration history. As immigration changes, the popularity of certain last names shift (change in position) over time.

Here are top ten most popular last names in the U.S. as of (at the time, at this point) 2000, in order:

  • Smith
  • Johnson
  • Williams
  • Brown
  • Jones
  • Miller
  • Davis
  • Garcia
  • Rodriguez
  • Wilson

Most of these names have been popular for a century or more in the U.S., and reflect our British heritage (history). But notice that Garcia is #8, and Rodriguez #9. These are popular last names in many Spanish-speaking countries. The U.S. has seen a dramatic (large) increase in Latino Americans, people from countries such as Mexico. The names increasing in popularity the most are Latino/Hispanic names, which reflects our changing population.

If you want to know if your last name is among the 5,000 most popular names in the U.S., go to the New York Times website and search for your last name. Unfortunately, neither McQuillan nor Tse are among the Top 5,000. Maybe next year!

The title of this article a little joke related to a popular expression in English, “keeping up with the Joneses.” To keep up with means to stay in the same position, not to fall behind or get behind in rank or importance as someone else. If you have one student who walks very slowly, the teacher may tell her to “keep up with” the rest of the class. Because Jones has always been such a popular name in the U.S., it is used here to mean your neighbor or someone you know who may have more money or possessions than you (a bigger house, a better car, etc.). Some people worry about trying to be as rich or as powerful as the people around them. The headline, then, says that the (name) Garcia is “catching up” (approaching in popularity) or keeping up with the (name) Jones in terms of popular last names.


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6 Responses to What’s an American Last Name?

  1. ESLPodcast Google Group says:

    Hello, Jeff
    Definitely I prefer to use my real name to communicate with others people, but something I think it´s funny to use a English name because I have a similar name in English.
    Maybe others listener agree,
    McQuillan and Tse aren´t among the Top 5,000 most popular names, but they are among the Top 2 people more adorable for the whole English Learner… LOL

    Take care Friends.

    Edward (Eduardo)

  2. apple says:

    Interesting article! From what I know, McQuillan should be a last name of someone whose ancestors were from Scotland, specifically, lowlands of Scotland.

  3. emiliano says:

    Yes, Eduardo I agree with you about McQuillan or Tse as they are the top adorable names for the whole english learners. But it is surprising that a second name as Garcia it is one of the most popular second names in USA.
    But on the IX century in Spain, Garcia was proper name of the first Condes de Castilla also in Navarra there were five Kings with proper name Garcia, (Garcia I, Garcia II ..etc.) on X and XI century, and as my wife inform me (she is the expert in history like in much of the other things) King Garcia V was a grandson of “El Cid Campeador” (¿do you remember Charlton Heston and Sofia Loren film? where Charlton Heston was El Cid?). The real name of “El Cid” (Cid means Señor in arab) was Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar, and second name Rodriguez means son of Rodrigo. Here, in Spain there was also some Kings with Rodrigo as proper name….The last visigode king was Rodrigo, the one that was defeated by the muslims on the year 711 and then was the begining of the Muslim Imperio in Spain.
    That is the history of the seconds names Garcia and Rodriguez (proper names first) now keeping up with jones, smith, johnson (hijo de Juan) and so on.
    It is very amusing.

  4. emiliano says:

    Dear apple, I have some privileged information that says our dear teacher McQuillan is a second name from Ireland (may be son of some Quillan king or similar from Ireland), and as Scotland they were lands of Celts.

  5. Taehoon says:

    I like rare name, because my name is very common name in Korea. There are many same name people who have name Taehoon Kim. The last name Kim is ranked at 109, it’s very many last name in U.S. too.
    I think McQuillan and Tse are very unique name, so easy to remember.
    If I have to have the english name, I will select rare and unique name, like McQuillan and Tse.


  6. Lyon says:

    Hello Jeff, I’d like to talk about the habit of choosing an English name among Taiwanese. Though pronunciations between Taiwanese and English are quite different, some still sounds very alike. Then people do like to use these names for they are so easy to be remembered by any Taiwanese. Sometimes it calls for imagination and some sense of humor to realize the relation between one’s Taiwanese and English names. Also it is the key to be popular easily. Very interesting topic.
    Good luck

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