Why so many "Smiths"?

I talked to someone today with the surname ‘Smith’ and wondered, why are there so many Smiths? It obviously derives from some sort of smith, some of which were blacksmiths but there are probably others.

But no matter how many smiths there were in ancient times, they could not have competed with ‘farmer’, but looking at the most common surnames below


Smith 2,501,922 1.006% 1st
Taylor 773,457 0.311% 10th
Baker 425,277 0.171% 37th
Farmer 74,610 0.03% 357th

So were there 33X more smiths than farmers in the old days? Or 6X more smiths than bakers? I would imagine ‘Farmer’ or ‘Baker’ would be first. Are ‘smiths’ just more likely to have male offspring?

A smith was a pretty common profession – there were also tinsmiths, blacksmiths, silversmiths and probably others. Every village would have one or two, which isn’t so many that a different designation would be used. “James the Smith” would indicate only one person in a village.

Farmer probably wasn’t that common because it was so common as an occupation. There were dozens of farmers in any community, so “James the Farmer” could mean any of several people. Instead of “farmer,” they’d use something other than their occupation (James Brown, for his hair color, etc.).

“Baker” was probably an occupation that came later than smiths (people did their own baking), so Smith had a head start.

No, not originally. Although “Smith” was probably fairly common, it has most likely reached its present prevalence through a process of random walk. Simply by chance, some surnames will increase in frequency, while others will decrease. Note in the graph to the left in the link, how the yellow line has deviated more from the average than any of the others, even though it started out at the same position and had no different probability of going positive than any of the other lines.

This is analogous to the process of genetic drift in evolution.

I’m not so sure about the random walk… Not only is “Smith” the most common surname in English, but the equivalent is also very common in other languages, such as “Schmidt” in German, or “Kowalski” in Polish.

I’m not saying Smith wasn’t common to begin with, but that its present position at the top of the list has little to do with the relative number of smiths in the population compared to other professions.

Here are the top 50 German surnames; the top 10 are:

  1. Müller (Mueller, Möller) = miller
  2. Schmidt (Schmitz, Schmitt, Schmid) = smith
  3. Schneider = tailor
  4. Fischer = fisher
  5. Meyer (Meier, Maier, Mayer) = dairyman
  6. Weber = weaver
  7. Schulz (Schulze, Scholz) = mayor
  8. Wagner = wagoner, wainwright
  9. Becker = baker
  10. Hoffmann (Hofmann) = landed farmer

The most common English surnames are here

  1. SMITH
  2. JONES
  5. BROWN
  7. EVANS

Of these, only two are derived from occupations, smith and tailor. Both are among the top 10 German names. However, “Miller,” the most common German name, is only number 61 in England. Were millers really that much more common in Germany than in England?

Here’s a rather interesting webpage with some discussion of the processes that may be at work in the increase and extinction of surnames.

Also remember when people came to America they often were given “English” names. My family was, and later they legally had them changed.

Hollywood stars took names that were easy to spell and remember and fit on a marquee. Arnold Schwarzenegger would be something else if he had hit the scene 20 years earlier.

In WWI and WWII, many Brauns became Brown and Schmidt became Smith. People wanted to not only be Americans but sound like they were Americans too

And when added together, the various spellings of the Old French word “Lefevre” (Lefebure, Le Fevre, Lefebvre, etc…) are also the most common names in France. It can’t be just by random chance that the word for “smith” would be a very common/the most common family name in a variety of countries. ** RealityChuck** got it right, AFAIK. There were a lot of smiths, but generally only one in a village, so that was making for a very convenient name.

I would say at the contrary that it has a lot to do with the relative number of smiths, a lot to do with naming conventions of the time (all top ten names in Germany being professions, while there’s a lot of “Xson” in your English list, and similarly most common Spanish names almost all being “son of X”) and only a little to do with randomness. 1st in the UK, 1st in France, 2nd in Germany 2nd in Poland doesn’t look like random.

I suspect that some surnames got dropped, as “Smith” sounds so much better than “Barnsweeper” or the more direct “Shitshoveler”. Being a Smith was pretty prestigious way back when, so the family might tend to hang on to the name whereas other families may have been more comfortable dropping a “profession” type name when no one in the family was in the business any more, and the “Johnson” and “Williamson” type names often weren’t surname as we understand them, but more patronymics that changed every generation. Also, some villages would be without a formal “Taylor”, “Baker”, or “Weaver” as people did those in their homes for their own family, whereas smithing was too specialized for everyone to do it and it was important to have someone who could do that work, so in certain times and places there really might have been more Smiths than other formally designated professions.

It’s simply a matter of breeding.

Anecdotally, I read somewhere (can’t remember where) that there were just as many millers in Britain, but the social status was different. Most people in an agrarian society had to use the services of a miller, who presumably charged commission. Millers were seen as having the opportunity to swindle in various ways and so were not trusted - it’s supposed to have been very similar to the way people see estate agents (?realtors) today. Therefore Miller was less common as a name. This could be rubbish and I don’t know what the explanation for Germany being different is.

Speculation is not data.

The seemingly greater tendency of the English to use patronymic surnames and those based on physical characteristics, such as Brown, makes the comparison tricky, though. If you include only the English surnames that are derived from occupations, Miller comes in at about number 10 (I am not sure about the origin of some names such as Bailey, Shaw, and Ward - they might push it out of the top 10).
So there’s still a discrepancy, but maybe not quite as big.

Yes, Bailey and Ward are occupational - the former has the same origin as ‘bailiff’, the latter being a guard.

Edit: the list also seems to be one also covering Wales, with Evans/Jones/Davies/Williams all surely having a higher presence than they would have for England only.

That cracked me up, considering your name is Broomstick as well :slight_smile:

The link from Colibri says the following: “Over two-thirds of all English surnames have become defunct in the 30 or so generations since 1350.”

And two theories:
Heat Death All surnames will eventually expire except 1
Steady State The rate of extinction plateau’s out
Interesting. My son is the last carrying my surname. Our name is essentially “small city” in another language, not exactly the most popular. I found some very good explanations in this thread, thanks all for researching it.

And G. Odoreida, you mentioned ‘Realtors’ today in comparison to Millers. I really wonder if professions today could potentially develop into surnames.

I rather doubt there will be a heat death - surnames are a social construction, entirely useless if everybody has the same one. It’s also worth considering the fact that surnames can be spontaneously generated, either by parents naming their child, (like a fusion of their own surnames,) or simply as a legal name change.

I just looked at the statistics for the most common surnames in Sweden and therer are no professions at all in the top 100 surnames.

The most common is a patronymic (ending in son). The top 18 are all patronymic. The rest of the top 100 is nature/place oriented, number 19 Lindberg for example means Beech Mountain.

Looking at our Smith (Smed) it seems there are only 222 of them (compared to 265 380 Johansson). There are no Millers (Mjölnare), Bakers (Bagare) and only 7 Carpenters (Snickare). So profession names clearly did not catch on here.

That’s been happening somewhat in India, where until recently many families did not use surnames, and now there are surnames like Merchant or Engineer. In English.

The Ashkenazim Jews in Europe historically used patronymics (like e.g. Abraham ben Ezra) instead of surnames. In the 18th and 19th centuries it was decreed that they all had to start using surnames European style, and being given a choice they went largely for names of jewels and precious metals and flowers in German. Names that sounded attractive in themselves, without necessarily signifying anything in particular about a person.

Iranians and Turks historically had not used surnames, but in 1925 in Iran and 1936 in Turkey laws were passed that everybody had to adopt a surname. A lot of them chose names based on ancestry, the equivalent of N-son, which is why they have all those -zādehs and -oğlus now. Many others in Iran chose surnames based on place names, with the adjectival suffix -i.

This appears to be true for Ireland, too, with Smith as the exception in the mostly-patronymic top 20.