Surnames often hold the secret to a family’s past. From ancestral origins to forgotten trades, read on to learn more about the most common last names in Europe, and discover how and why these names came about.
Although it is the second smallest of the seven continents, only Australia is smaller, Europe is ranked third in population, with 2019 estimates at 747,183,000 people. It packs tremendous diversity within its 3,930,000 square miles, and is home to both the largest country in the world, Russia, and the smallest, Vatican City. Europe has more transcontinental countries than any other continent, with France, Denmark, and Norway holding territory in North America, and the countries of Turkey, Russia, and Cyprus straddling both Europe and Asia. With so much linguistic and cultural diversity, it is hardly surprising that each of Europe’s 44 nations reports a different surname as being the most common.
In Europe, many of today’s surnames stem from a medieval profession. In the United Kingdom, the most common last name is Smith. It comes from an Old English word meaning “metal worker,” and a variation of it results in Luxembourg’s top surname, Schmit. Austria’s most popular last name, Gruber, means “miner,” and Müller, the most common last name in both Germany and Switzerland means “miller.” In Slovakia, the popular surname Varga means “leather worker” or “cobbler.”
Where You Are From
As trade spread throughout Europe during the Middle Ages, surnames began to include a place of origin as a means of distinguishing oneself from other tradesmen and travellers. Thus Rusu, the most common name in Moldova, means “one who comes from Russia,” while Horvat means “Croat” in Croatia. The name Silva in Portuguese means “of the woods”, and it's easy to imagine medieval shepherds and farmers leaving their forested hills to trade their goods in Lisbon and Porto.
By and large most last names in Europe derive from a patronymic system, where the child is given the name of its father or a paternal ancestor. Hence, Bulgaria's Ivanov means “son of Ivan”, the Netherland’s De Jong is “son of Jon” and Sweden’s Anderson is the “son of Anders”. Unique to this list is Iceland, where the most common surname is Jónsdóttir. Historically, when a child is born in Iceland its name is dependent on gender, with the suffix -son or -dóttir affixed to the father’s name. If the child were a boy for instance, then the last name would be Jónsson, and if it's a girl, it is Jónsdóttir.
Today parents are usually free to name their child as they wish, often combining surnames or even forgoing parental names altogether for something entirely new. Not every country allows such freedom, however. France, Germany, Sweden and Denmark have strict naming laws and can reject a name they feel is inappropriate. In Iceland, spouses keep their surnames and Icelandic citizens married abroad must retain their original name when they return to the island nation.