Why do some surnames become increasingly uncommon? And how rare is your last name?
This article gives examples of rare and extinct surnames in the U.S. and the U.K.
We also show you how to check how rare or common your name is across the world.
Why Do Surnames Become Rare?
There are several reasons why surnames start to dwindle in number until some will disappear.
Spellings may change from generation to generation, especially when people migrate from one country to another.
War, famine, and natural disasters can remove not just families but an entire village from history.
Names as occupations
We know that many names refer to old professions, and some of those occupations have gone or changed in recent centuries.
For example, Culpepper is a surname on the brink of disappearing. This old English name referred to herbalists or spicers. The profession hasn’t died out, but perhaps they chose to use the name of Spicer instead.
Women changing their names
But the biggest factor is probably from women taking their husband’s last name in marriage.
If the married couple only has daughters, then the surnames of both spouses have slightly dwindled.
Soon we’ll all be Smiths
There was an amusing article in the Observer (a British newspaper) about how our descendants would all be named Smith.
The author makes a good point that as a surname starts dropping in number, the effect begins to accelerate.
A female from the Gastrell family is statistically more likely to meet and fall in love with a Smith than a Birdwhistle. You see how this works!
Nothing wrong with being a Smith
One of my grandparents was a Smith, which doesn’t help with building the family tree. But a common name brings some advantages.
I know two women with unusual surnames who were delighted to take their husband’s more common name.
At last, they didn’t have to repeat or spell out their names with every new encounter.
Rare And Extinct Last Names In Britain
Suddenly British readers are thinking about having a chip sarnie for tea.
Here are some more examples of names with under two hundred bears, under twenty bearers, and completely extinct in Britain.
Rare And Extinct Last Names In The United States
What about in the United States? Extinct names are surprisingly difficult to nail down.
The U.S. Census Bureau keeps a tally of surnames from the national census, but they don’t publish which names have completely disappeared.
However, they do tell us which are so rare that there are only one hundred bearers. Well, they don’t actually tell us, we have to figure it out ourselves from the raw data.
Let’s walk through how to do this.
2010 census surnames
The bureau provides a file that has all surnames that occurred in the 2010 census at least a hundred times.
Open the file and you’ll see Smith, Johnson, and Williams at the top. So far, so predictable. The trick is to scroll down to the bottom.
Examples of rare names in the U.S.
Here are some of the rarest names in the United States. There were only one hundred people with these names in the 2010 census.
And that’s just a selection from the As, Bs, and Cs!
I must admit that Concord and Copperman surprise me.
And I wonder if recent generations of the Baitz and the Bennit families were simply tired of having their names misspelled all the time.
The Bates and the Bennetts have a much easier time picking up their prescriptions!
How To Check If You Have A Rare U.S. Surname
There are several ways to check whether you have a rare or uncommon last name.
If you’re American, you can download the file I mentioned from the Census Bureau. It’s at the bottom of the page, or here is a direct link.
This file has all surnames that appear in the census at least one hundred times.
The Bureau provides a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet (the .xlsx extension). Alternatively, you can import the text file into another spreadsheet application e.g. Google Sheets.
The first column has the name, and the third column has the number of appearances in the census.
Do a search for your last name to see how many other people shared this name in 2010.
The names are in upper case, so make sure you leave the “match case” option off.
Can’t find your name in the file?
If you can’t find your name in this file, then there were less than one hundred people in the U.S. with the name that year.
That’s a rare name!
How To Check If You Have A Rare Last Name Worldwide
Checking globally is a much greater challenge to get accurate results.
Any file or database would have to have national data from every state. There are many countries that don’t run a regular census. Others may not have mandatory birth registration.
So, a perfect database doesn’t exist. However, a few organizations have had a go at collecting as much international data as they can find.
Forebears.io is the website of a Serbian company that collects name data from across the world.
When you enter a surname into their free search feature, the website provides estimated data like:
- How common your name is
- Approximately how many people have this name
- Where it is most prevalent
Here’s an example from one of my grandparent’s names:
I focus on the second number to try to grasp how rare is the surname that I’m checking.
When you scroll down a little further, you get a neat visualization of how your name is distributed across the world.
The surname definitions on Forebears
Forebears.io also gives you a definition or meaning of the surname. You can take this with a pinch of salt.
Here’s an excerpt of what I got for the very common Irish name of “Collins”.
The -in Colling and Collings is excrescent (compare Jennings).Forebears.io
I’ll be honest with you, I have no idea what that means. The rest of the description seemed very archaic.
When I looked into this a little more closely, I realized that Forebears scanned in a load of old books on surnames. The website is simply serving up excerpts from these old tomes.
The example above is from a book published in 1896. This is “A Dictionary Of English And Welsh Surnames” by Charles Wareing Endell Bardesly.
Does Bardesly represent current academic thinking? I don’t know.
How accurate is Forebears.io?
I’ve already mentioned that no database can be completely accurate.
The accuracy of Forebears depends on where they are sourcing the data. They seem to be pretty good for Western developed countries.
However, people have commented they may be less accurate for non-Western countries e.g. Vietnam.
How To Check All The Names In Your Family Tree
You may have a family tree with hundreds (or thousands) of last names.
Would you like an easy way to prepare a list that is easily formatted for checking on the Forebears.io website?
Check out our tutorial on extracting a list of surnames from your family tree.
Starting A Family Tree?
You have several choices if you want to build a family tree online. I use Ancestry.com, but I also keep a family tree on MyHeritage.com too. Both sites have their advantages.
If you intend to use Ancestry, we have plenty of articles and tutorials. Here’s an overview of our tips and tutorials on building your family tree on Ancestry.com.