While the Chinese have been using surnames since 2852 B.C.E., they're a modern invention elsewhere. Europeans adopted them in roughly the 15th century, while Turkey only started requiring them in 1934.
Scholars say cultures that use surnames generally employed them to describe one of five characteristics:
- patronymics (names that tell who your father or ancestors are — Johnson literally means John's son)
- occupations (the last name Miller tells you the person is descended from millers)
- toponymics (home region — e.g., Monte is Portuguese for mountain)
- personal characteristics (personality or appearance, like Short, Long or Daft)
- clans or tribes
Yet not every last name fits into one of these categories. Enslaved people were often forced to take the surnames of their subjugators, which is why many Blacks in the U.S. have European surnames such as Williams, Davis or Jackson. In fact, when you look at the most common surnames around the globe, you'll see they reflect the world's most dominant colonizers: the English, Spanish, Chinese and Muslims.
In English-speaking cultures, it's long been the custom for women to change their birth last name to their husband's upon marriage. (That practice has been on the decline since the 19th-century feminist movements, though.) And in Mexico, people are given two surnames: the father's surname followed by the mother's (for example, Catalina González Martínez.) When addressing someone, though, the protocol is to use only the father's surname, so Catalina would be called Catalina González.
Then there's the issue of migration. When people migrate to another country or culture, they may alter their surname to better match that of their new homeland. Take 20th-century immigrants to the U.S. Many Anglicized their surnames to better assimilate into U.S. culture, or simplified them because their surnames were difficult for Americans to spell or pronounce. So a Polish surname such as Ziolkowski, for example, might have been shortened to Zill. Other times, illiterate immigrants didn't realize a clerk, census worker or other official had misspelled their surname. Thus, a Joseph Heyer may have unwittingly become Joseph Hire.
Despite all of these complexities, or sometimes because of them, certain surnames dominate various corners of the globe. Yet there's no doubt about which surname is the most popular in the world: Wang. More than 106 million people have the surname Wang, a Mandarin term for prince or king. It's not too surprising that the top surname is Chinese, as China has the world's largest population. As of 2022, it was home to 1.45 billion people, or 18.5 percent of the world's total.
The reason Wang tops all other Chinese last names may be traced to the Xin dynasty, which began in 9 C.E. and was headed by Emperor Wang Mang. Mang and his Xin dynasty took away power from the Liu family, who were successors of the Han dynasty, so many royal families adopted this surname to protect their lives and wealth. From there, the name greatly proliferated throughout the centuries.
Now let's take a look at the most common surnames in each populated continent, according to genealogy website Forebears.