There is no law in the United States that surnames must have more than one letter.
But that doesn’t mean that there are people with one-letter last names.
I’ve reviewed recent censuses, data from the Social Security Administration, and a research project published in 1982.
My conclusion is that at least four letters are used as last names in America. These are the four:
Read on to learn more about the existence and origins of these shortest of surnames.
Are There People With Single-Letter Surnames In The U.S. Census?
There is no single-letter name in the published archives of the 2000 and 2010 U.S. censuses.
However, that doesn’t mean that people with the shortest names don’t exist. The United States only publishes details of surnames that have at least one hundred bearers.
This is because it would be too easy to identify individuals with very rare names.
So, we need to resort to other sources.
Using The Social Security Index
The U.S. Social Security website publishes information about popular baby names and surnames.
But I have to go back to 1974 to find anything they disclosed about one-letter surnames.
In 1974, there were 221 people with a social security number and a one-letter name. The population of the United States was nearly 214 million that year.
Social Security told us that twenty-four people had the surname A. This was the highest number across the letters.
There were three letters that had only two people with the name:
Apparently, there were other letters that had a number between that high and low. And I assume that some letters had no people at all.
Unfortunately, there aren’t further details from this study.
However, there was another more detailed study conducted in the late 1970s and published in 1982. I’ll look at that next.
1982 Study Of Telephone Directories
Albert Ross Eckler was a mathematician with a keen interest in word games and genealogy.
He set out to estimate the number of one-letter surnames in the United States in the late 1970s.
Of course, this was before mobile phones. Eckler trawled through the huge telephone directories compiled by the Bell Telephone company.
Are you too young to remember telephone directories stacked on the hall table? The pages were formatted like in this picture (I’ve faked the addresses and numbers):
Eckler’s methodology was to flip through the telephone books to the pages where the letter changed e.g. from G to H.
Were there entries under “H” before the section for “Harris”? Those were the one-letter surnames.
This means that he could skip through most of the pages in the book.
Challenge of typos and mistakes
Eckler pointed out that many examples were errors from reversing initials, first, and last names.
So, there are telephone entries for “Geraldo A” and “Tony Kobe A”.
But Eckler suspects these are really “A Geraldo” and “A Tony Kobe”.
In fact, the mathematician suspected that most of the examples he found were typographic errors. Thankfully, he still listed every example.
I spent an evening looking at the one-letter entries. In the end, I agreed with Eckler on this.
However, there were some entries that Eckler believed to be genuine.
He was satisfied that there were genuine one-letter entries for the letters O, I, U, and E.
Let’s look into these in more detail.
“O” As The Most Common One-Letter Last Name
The conclusion from Eckler’s study was that O was the most common one-letter last name in the United States.
I researched the South Korean census archives and found that nearly 1.5% of people in South Korea had the surname O. This can also be spelled Oh for western purposes.
That may seem a small percentage, but it was 763,281 people in the country.
It’s very reasonable to assume that people of that name come to the United States.
I examined the fifty-two entries that Eckler found in telephone directors in the 1970s.
When I considered the entries for the first names, some were Western names. For example, there was a first name listed as “Thomas”.
Could this be a mistaken entry for someone with the surname Thomas and the initial O? In other words, the surname and first name were reversed?
That seems probable. However, most of the entries seemed typically Korean. Here are a few:
- Song Tok
- Chan Son
- Yong Hwan
If you want the full list, check out our article on short surnames that start with O.
“I” was one of the few letters that Eckler believed had genuine telephone entries.
There were eleven entries listed in the 1970s telephone directories.
I counted four where some could be of Chinese origin:
- Mac Seng
- Rex Yuchun
- Ted Chih-Fan
But there were also “first names” like Jessie and Milton. These may be typographic errors where the last name and initial have been reversed.
If you want the full list of telephone entries, check our article on short last names starting with I.
Eckler was convinced that some of the telephone entries for “U” were genuine.
Here are some of the entries that Eckler found in the telephone directories under “U”:
- Hung Yong
- Kwi Sui
Could these be typographic errors for someone with an initial U?
In other words, was “Peter U” really be “U Peter”?
It’s possible. However, some of the names that are likely of Asian origins are probably genuine.
You can see the full list of eleven telephone entries in our article on short last names that start with U.
When Eckler found two last names in the telephone directories under the surname “E”, he wasn’t convinced that they were genuine.
The supposed first names were “Coure John” and “R Kendrick”.
If Eckler’s suspicions were correct, these full names were really “U John Coure” (reversed) and “U R Kendrick”.
However, another researcher named Elsdon Smith identified a woman in the United States with E as her last name.
This lady was from Burma where the name is pronounced as “aye”.
Can “A” Be A One-Letter Last Name?
Eckler thought the entries he found in the telephone book for A were mistakes.
But I mentioned earlier that the SSA (Social Security Administration) revealed in 1974 that over twenty people were named A in their database.
That’s a lot more than the six that Eckler found in the telephone directories. You can see the full list in our article on short last names beginning with A.
What About Other Letters?
This article focused on the few letters that the Eckler study identified as likely to be a genuine last name.
However, most other letters were also found in the telephone directories as a surname.
You can judge the entries by yourself in our series of articles on short names. Here is the index to each article: