explainer

Why are there so many Australians called Smith, Jones, Lee, Nguyen, Wang and Singh?

Smith, Jones and Brown. Nguyen, Wang and Singh. What’s it like to have one of the most common surnames in Australia? Well, don’t ask me, because I don’t have a clue.

But what I do find interesting is finding out why some of Australia’s most common surnames are so very common. Here goes.

Smith

This the most common surname not only in Australia but also in the UK, US and New Zealand. Pretty obviously, it’s an occupational surname, as in a blacksmith. It’s related to the word “smite”, which is what smiths did a lot. Over the centuries, many people who weren’t actually descendants of blacksmiths – including Native Americans and Romany gypsies in the UK – took on the surname, if they were looking for something common and Anglo-sounding. This made the surname even more common. Other languages have their own versions of Smith, including Schmidt (German), Lefebvre (French) and Kowal/Kowalski (Polish).

Jones

This simply means “John’s son”, making it basically the same name as Johnson. Jones has long been the second most popular surname in Australia. It’s even more popular in Wales, where close to 20 per cent of people carry it (due to Welsh people in the Middle Ages being forced to adopt English naming conventions). At one point in 2008, the Welsh rugby team had seven out of 15 players called Jones. In 2006, 1224 Joneses got together in Cardiff to set a world record (beaten the following year by a gathering of Gallaghers).

Brown

Yep, this just means plain old “brown”, as in a person with brown hair, brown skin or brown clothes. Not too different from the surnames Black, White and Read/Reid (red). (But different from Green. That was a surname given to someone living near the village green, not someone with green hair.) Brown has always been among the top few surnames in Australia and other English-speaking countries populated largely by brunettes.

Williams

Like Wilson, this just means, pretty obviously, “son or descendant of William”. William was the most popular first name in England in the Middle Ages, with close to 15 per cent of men being called William, which explains why both Williams and Wilson make the top 10 surnames in Australia. Other surnames that show your great-great-etc-grandfather was a William: Willmot, Wilcox, Fitzwilliam and Gillam (but not Willey, which is a place name usually meaning “willow wood”).

Serena Williams. Image: Getty.
ADVERTISEMENT

Taylor

Another occupational surname, indicating a tailor, or, literally, “one who cuts”. Obviously the common occupations would lead to the more common surnames, while the less common occupations would lead to less common surnames, such as Crowther (stringed instrument player), Frobisher (cleaner of armour) and Latimer (interpreter).

Nguyen

This was the name of a ruling dynasty in Vietnam, and over the years, many families took on Nguyen as a surname, to stay on the right side of the rulers. Around 40 per cent of Vietnamese people now have this surname, which explains why it’s so common in Australia, especially in Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide.

Lee

This is a common English surname, meaning “meadow”. But Lee is even more common as a surname in South Korea, where it’s second only to Kim. That probably explains why it’s seen so often in Australia, especially in Sydney. Li, meaning “plum” or “minister”, is extremely common among people of Chinese origin.

Wang

Wang is the most popular surname in the world, with more than 90 million people in China bearing the name. In Australia, it’s very popular in Sydney and Melbourne. Wang means “king” and is, not surprisingly, a royal surname, taken on by many subjects. Wong is a variation.

Singh

The Sanskit word for “lion”, Singh was taken on as a title by many warriors in India. It’s widely used among Sikhs, and is especially common in Melbourne. Singh and Kaur are so widespread among Sikhs that at one point, the Canadian government ordered Indian immigrants with these surnames to change them (the order was later reversed).

Patel

From the state of Gujarat, Patel means “headman” or “village chief”. Interestingly, this is not the most common surname in India, but it is the most common surname of families of Indian origin in several other countries, including the UK. In the US, it was once estimated that around a third of motels were owned by Patels. Patel is also common among Indian families in Australia, particularly in western Sydney.

FROM OUR NETWORK
00:00 / ???