Whats with all the Smiths?
By Simonbook - 09 Nov 2015 in
Everybody knows a Smith. There's Will Smith. Of course, who can forget Kevin Smith? And for a short time, a nazi-fighting archaeologist you might have heard of was disturbingly called - you guessed it - Indiana Smith. (Before George Lucas thankfully changed Indy's surname to Jones).
Smith is ubiquitous. It's the most common last name in England (where the word originated), Australia, and, of course, the United States—in fact, there's over 2 million of them in the US alone, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
This begs the question wondered by Reddit user rphillip in the Ask Historians community: Why are there so many Smiths in the world?
Let's go all the way back to 1066, to when the Normans invaded Britain. Before then, Britons didn't have last names, according to Paul Blake, the Chairman of the Society of Genealogists. It was the Normans who introduced the concept of surnames to England.
Some last names were chosen based on a person's location (think Bedford and Hampshire). Some people even took their last names from the names of rivers and trees. It was sort of a free-for-all.
Other last names were based on occupation. This is where Smith comes in. Smith is an Anglo-Saxon word—derived from Smite—meaning to "strike with a hammer," according to the Origin and History of the Name of Smith.
Some popular jobs at the time were goldsmiths, shoesmiths, coppersmiths, ironsmiths, and, of course, blacksmiths.
"Back in the middle ages, most villages had a Smith," writes historian George Redmonds in Surnames, DNA, and Family History.
Men who who worked as "smiths" were esteemed members of their community. The chief ironsmith, in particular, was highly regarded by the king, since this was the man in charge of building weapons. In Welsh courts, the ironsmith was so respected that the king gave him any type of liquor that he requested. Talk about a sweet gig.
It's not that much of a stretch to think that the John the Ironsmith was more valued than John the Eggler (one who sells eggs) or—the unfortunate—John the Sexton (one who rings bells/dig graves) in medieval society. Therefore, why wouldn't you want to have a respectable last name like Smith?
Let's fast forward to the colonization of the Americas. In the 1600s, the first settlers to New England were "Smiths." Since the history of America coincides with the history of Smiths, the last name has become as American as apple pie.
Native Americans adopted the name to become more Anglicized. Slave owners gave the name "Smith" to African slaves (and around 20 percent of all Smiths in the US today are black Americans). Jewish settlers took the name "Smith" to not stand out. And Germans named Schmidt changed their names to Smith.
Eventually, Smith was the most popular name in the United States (This was the case even 100 years ago).
But as we learned in the Ask Historians community, Smith (or variations of it) are popular in other languages besides English.
Reddit user Bras_Cubas explains:
"In Portuguese for example, the name "Ferreira" is extremely common and it's related to "Smith" as it comes from "ferreiro," which means "blacksmith."
And it's also common in Arabic:
Arabic as well, the "Haddad" surname is very common across the Arab world especially among Christians and particularly (Maronite Christians) It means blacksmith, no other variation.
And in Hungary:
One of the most common Hungarian surnames is Kovács (Kováts,Kovách alt spelling), which means Smith.
Alternative spelling is usually associated with well off people.
Even though Smith may seem widespread, it actually isn't the most common last name in the world. That award goes to the surname Li (or Lee) from China.