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How the Smiths took over Europe

In more than a dozen countries as far apart as Portugal and Russia, 'Smith' is the most popular occupational surname

Image: Marcin Ciura
  • 'Smith' is not just the most common surname in many English-speaking countries
  • In local translations, it's also the most common occupational surname in a large part of Europe
  • Ironically, Smiths are so ubiquitous today because smiths were so special a few centuries ago

Meet the Smiths, Millers, Priests and Imams - the most popular occupational surnames across Europe.

Image: Marcin Ciura

Although very few people are smiths by profession these days, there are millions of Smiths by surname the world over. It's the most popular surname in Britain, Australia, New Zealand and the United States, as well as the second most popular surname in Canada and the fifth most popular one in Ireland. And they're a thriving bunch, at least in the U.S.: the 2010 Census (1) counted 2,442,977 Americans called Smith, 2.8% more than in 2000.

Curiously, 'Smith' also is one of the most popular surnames across most of Europe –translated in the various local vernaculars, of course. This map shows the most common occupational surnames in each country. By colour-coding the professions, this map shows a remarkable pro-smith consistency across Europe – as well as some curious regional exceptions.

‘Smith’ popular throughout Europe

'Smith', in all its variations, is the most popular occupational surname throughout Europe. Not just in the UK, but also in:

  • Belgium (Desmet) and Luxembourg, (Schmitt);
  • France (Lefebvre), Italy (Ferrari) and Portugal (Ferreira);
  • Slovenia (Kovačič), Croatia (Kovačevič), Hungary (Kovács), Slovakia (Kováč), Poland (Kowalski), Lithuania (Kavaliauskas), Latvia (Kalējs) and Belarus (Kavalyov);
  • Estonia (Sepp); and
  • Russia (Kuznetsov).

‘Miller’ on top in many Germanic-language countries

'Miller' is the most popular occupational surname in many Germanic-language countries, but also in Spain and Ukraine (perhaps because the grain in both countries is mainly in the plain):

  • There's Müller (in Germany and Switzerland), Møller (in Denmark and Norway) and Möller (Sweden);
  • Molina (in Spain – the map also shows the most popular surname in Catalonia/Catalan: Ferrer, i.e. 'Smith'); and
  • Melnik (in Ukraine).

Clergy surnames rule in the Balkans

Catholic clergy must remain celibate, so 'Priest' as a surname is rare to non-existent throughout Europe. Except in the Balkans, where Catholicism is largely absent. Here, the Orthodox and Islamic clergies have passed on the title from father to son, eventually as a surname, to popular effect. Orthodox clergy are addressed as papa or pope (which means 'father' – so the surname rather redundantly translates to 'father's son'). Islamic teachers or imams are known by the Turkish/Persian term hodzha. An overview:

  • Popov (in Bulgaria), Popovic (in both Serbia and Montenegro), Popovski (in Macedonia);
  • Popa (in Romania);
  • Papadopoulos (in Greece); and
  • Hodžić (in Bosnia-Herzegovina), Hoxha (in both Kosovo and Albania).

Landowners and other professions

Austria and the Czech Republic have different national languages but are neighbours and share a lot of history. Could that explain why they have a similar most popular occupational surname, for 'landowner'?

  • Huber (in Austria) and
  • Dvořák (in the Czech Republic).

Just four professions, that wraps up all but five countries on this map. Those five each have their very own most popular occupational surname:

  • Bakker (in the Netherlands): 'Baker'
  • Kinnunen (in Finland): 'Skinner'
  • Ceban (in Moldova): 'Shepherd'
  • Avci (in Turkey): 'Hunter'
  • Murphy (in Ireland): 'Sea Warrior'

​Even more Smiths

Judging from the popularity of these surnames, your generic European village of a few centuries ago really couldn't do without a smithy. It was a much more essential craft even than that of the miller (or the baker, who put the miller's flour to good use) – except in the Balkans, where spiritual sustenance apparently sated a greater need. On the outskirts of Anytown, Europe live the shepherd and the hunter, the skinner and the pirate.

A bit too simplistic? Perhaps not simplistic enough. This map could have been dominated by even more Smiths. As the original poster explains, he always picked the most frequent version of an occupational surname, even if multiple variants point to a more popular alternative.

In the Netherlands, for instance, people with the surnames Smit, Smits, Smid, de Smit, Smet and Smith collectively outnumber those with the surnames Bakker, Bekker, de Bakker and Backer. So, the Netherlands could be considered another win for 'Smith' – except that the variant Bakker is more frequent than any other single variant.

Same story in Germany: added up, there are more people named Schmidt, Schmitt, Schmitz and Schmid than Müller. Ditto for Spain: Herrero, Herrera and Ferrer together outnumber Molina. Also in Finland, where Seppä, Seppälä and Seppänen together have a higher count than Kinnunen.

Smiths in other cultures

'Smith' was a crucial occupation in other cultures too, judging from the familiar ring it has in these languages:

  • Demirci (Turkish)
  • Hadad (Syriac, Aramaic, Arabic)
  • Nalbani (Albanian)
  • McGowan (Gaelic)
  • Faber (Latin)

​Other most popular surnames

Take note, though: 'Smith' may be the most popular surname in in the Anglosphere, this map does not mean to show that its variants in French, Russian and other languages also are the most popular surnames in the countries marked grey. They are merely the most popular occupational surnames.

As this sample of most common ones for each country shows, surnames can refer to a host of other things. Personal qualities or physical attributes, for example:

  • Russia: Smirnov ('the quiet one')
  • Turkey: Yilmaz ('unflinching')
  • Hungary: Nagy ('big')
  • Italy: Rossi/Russo ('red', in northern and southern Italy, respectively)

Another option: the origin of the name-bearer (be it a place or a person):

  • Sweden: Andersson ('son of Anders')
  • Slovakia: Horvath ('Croat')
  • Kosovo: Krasniqi (refers to the Krasniq tribe and their mountainous home region)
  • Portugal: Silva ('woodland')
  • Latvia: Bērziņš ('little birch tree')
  • Estonia: Tamm ('oak')

But sometimes, even for the most popular ones, the exact origin of the surname is lost in time:

  • Spain: Garcia (originally Basque, possibly meaning 'young', 'bear' or 'young bear')
  • Finland: Korhonen ('hard of hearing' or 'dim-witted'; 'village elder'; 'proud'; 'upright').

Smith popularity theory

So why exactly is Smith – and not Miller, for example – the most popular surname in many English-speaking countries? The theory propounded by historian C.M. Matthews in History Today (July 1967) probably also holds for the other-language variants so popular throughout Europe:

"The reason for (the) multiplicity (of the surname 'Smith') is not so much that metal-workers were numerous as that they were important and widespread. On the skill of the smith, both rich and poor depended for the most essential things of life, the tools of husbandry and the weapons of hunting and war. Every community in the land must have one, every castle, every manor; and so distinctive was his trade that he would seldom need another name".

That does not mean all people with the surname have a forefather who forged iron into weapons and farm tools. Especially in North America, 'Smith' was adopted by many people precisely because it was already common – as a secret identity or to blend in, for example by natives, slaves and immigrants.

Map found here on Marcin Ciura's blog.

Strange Maps #942

Got a strange map? Let me know at strangemaps@gmail.com.

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  • Researchers have found that some basic words appear to be more memorable than others.
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Cognitive psychologist Weizhen Xie (Zane) of the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) works with people who have intractable epilepsy, a form of the disorder that can't be controlled with medications. During research into the brain activity of patients, he and his colleagues discovered something odd about human memory: It appears that certain basic words are consistently more memorable than other basic words.

The research is published in Nature Human Behaviour.

An odd find

Image source: Tsekhmister/Shutterstock

Xie's team was re-analyzing memory tests of 30 epilepsy patients undertaken by Kareem Zaghloul of NINDS.

"Our goal is to find and eliminate the source of these harmful and debilitating seizures," Zaghloul said. "The monitoring period also provides a rare opportunity to record the neural activity that controls other parts of our lives. With the help of these patient volunteers we have been able to uncover some of the blueprints behind our memories."

Specifically, the participants were shown word pairs, such as "hand" and "apple." To better understand how the brain might remember such pairings, after a brief interval, participants were supplied one of the two words and asked to recall the other. Of the 300 words used in the tests, five of them proved to be five times more likely to be recalled: pig, tank, doll, pond, and door.

The scientists were perplexed that these words were so much more memorable than words like "cat," "street," "stair," "couch," and "cloud."

Intrigued, the researchers looked at a second data source from a word test taken by 2,623 healthy individuals via Amazon's Mechanical Turk and found essentially the same thing.

"We saw that some things — in this case, words — may be inherently easier for our brains to recall than others," Zaghloul said. That the Mechanical Turk results were so similar may "provide the strongest evidence to date that what we discovered about how the brain controls memory in this set of patients may also be true for people outside of the study."

Why understanding memory matters

person holding missing piece from human head puzzle

Image source: Orawan Pattarawimonchai/Shutterstock

"Our memories play a fundamental role in who we are and how our brains work," Xie said. "However, one of the biggest challenges of studying memory is that people often remember the same things in different ways, making it difficult for researchers to compare people's performances on memory tests." He added that the search for some kind of unified theory of memory has been going on for over a century.

If a comprehensive understanding of the way memory works can be developed, the researchers say that "we can predict what people should remember in advance and understand how our brains do this, then we might be able to develop better ways to evaluate someone's overall brain health."

Party chat

Image source: joob_in/Shutterstock

Xie's interest in this was piqued during a conversation with Wilma Bainbridge of University of Chicago at a Christmas party a couple of years ago. Bainbridge was, at the time, wrapping up a study of 1,000 volunteers that suggested certain faces are universally more memorable than others.

Bainbridge recalls, "Our exciting finding is that there are some images of people or places that are inherently memorable for all people, even though we have each seen different things in our lives. And if image memorability is so powerful, this means we can know in advance what people are likely to remember or forget."

spinning 3D model of a brain

Temporal lobes

Image source: Anatomography/Wikimedia

At first, the scientists suspected that the memorable words and faces were simply recalled more frequently and were thus easier to recall. They envisioned them as being akin to "highly trafficked spots connected to smaller spots representing the less memorable words." They developed a modeling program based on word frequencies found in books, new articles, and Wikipedia pages. Unfortunately, the model was unable to predict or duplicate the results they saw in their clinical experiments.

Eventually, the researchers came to suspect that the memorability of certain words was linked to the frequency with which the brain used them as semantic links between other memories, making them often-visited hubs in individuals's memory networks, and therefore places the brain jumped to early and often when retrieving memories. This idea was supported by observed activity in participants' anterior temporal lobe, a language center.

In epilepsy patients, these words were so frequently recalled that subjects often shouted them out even when they were incorrect responses to word-pair inquiries.

Seek, find

Modern search engines no longer simply look for raw words when resolving an inquiry: They also look for semantic — contextual and meaning — connections so that the results they present may better anticipate what it is you're looking for. Xie suggests something similar may be happening in the brain: "You know when you type words into a search engine, and it shows you a list of highly relevant guesses? It feels like the search engine is reading your mind. Well, our results suggest that the brains of the subjects in this study did something similar when they tried to recall a paired word, and we think that this may happen when we remember many of our past experiences."

He also notes that it may one day be possible to leverage individuals' apparently wired-in knowledge of their language as a fixed point against which to assess the health of their memory and brain.

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