What’s in a Name? Origin Stories Behind Popular Last Names

Have you ever wondered where your last name comes from? Whether they are modern or ancient, last names have several meanings. They are sometimes biblical or signify the beauty of nature. They can even be derived from one of your ancestor’s jobs.

alphabets on wooden cubes as a background
Source: 123rf.com

Or, for all you know, your last name is something that your grandfather came up with on the spot after immigrating to a new country. No matter their origin, last names are something that connects us to our heritage. Here’s our list of popular last names in America (and their meanings). Did yours make the cut?


The last name smith is an Old English name that was given to anyone who worked with metal. It is also related to the Old English verb that means “to strike” or “to smite.” This means that the last name Smith may have also been given to soldiers or the craftsman who made metal armor.

Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith
Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith. Source: Shutterstock

The last name arrived in the United States in 1840, particularly in New York. Around 20 percent of all Smiths at the time lived in the city. Today, Smith is the most popular last name in the whole United States.


While the last name Smith originated in England, it eventually spread to other European counties. The last name then took on different variations depending on the local languages. For example, Schmidt is essentially the German version of Smith.

Alica Schmidt
Alica Schmidt. Photo By Action Press/Shutterstock

The last name was common among blacksmiths who lived in Germany and Austria, and Denmark. Today, Schmidt is known for being a Jewish last name, but since it is derived from an occupation, there is no sure way of knowing its religion based on their last name alone.