Jefferson M Fish Ph.D.

Looking in the Cultural Mirror

What Do Names Tell Us? Part II--Last Names

Can we make cultural inferences from people's last names?

Posted Mar 28, 2011

Immigrants in 1902 entering the United States through Ellis Island

(From time to time, Looking in the Cultural Mirror deals with broad topics that require multiple posts-for example, the six part series on The Census and Race [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6].)


Last names convey cultural information--though that information can easily be misinterpreted by making unjustified assumptions, or distorted through stereotypes. Here are some examples of surnames: Fitzpatrick, Kowalski, Rossi, Schmidt, Smith.

Most Americans, on encountering people with these surnames, would immediately think Irish, Polish, Italian, German, and English respectively, and they might make cultural assumptions about the individuals based on their surnames. For example, they might expect a Mr. Rossi to be more emotionally expressive than a Mr. Schmidt.

(Americans might also make the implicit inference white about all five; and they might assume Roman Catholic for the first three, since that is the predominant religion in Ireland, Poland, and Italy. But I'll discuss the relationships of names to race and religion in a subsequent post.)

When you think about the matter, however, there are problems with making ethnic inferences from last names. For example, Mr. Rossi might be the great grandson of Italian immigrants. Since the family name is passed down through the male line, his great grandfather might be his only Italian ancestor. Furthermore, although he might be considered Italian American because of his last name, his father might have married an immigrant from Germany, a Ms. Schmidt, so that he had minimal Italian cultural influence during his upbringing in contrast to a strong German influence--he might even be bilingual in English and German.

Individuals do exist who haven't changed their names, whose immigrant ancestors didn't have their surnames changed for them at Ellis Island, and both of whose parents share the cultural ancestry suggested by the surnames. In such cases, one can develop some cultural hypotheses by comparing their given names to their surnames. Here are two possible sets of men's names (as an exercise, try to make up two parallel sets of names for women):

(1) Sean Fitzpatrick, Pawel Kowalski, Lorenzo Rossi, Hans Schmidt, Spencer Smith; and
(2) Ethan Fitzpatrick, Alexander Kowalski, Jayden Rossi, Noah Schmidt, Jacob Smith.

In the first set, the given names are consistent with the culture implied by the family names, and in the second set the given names were chosen from among the most popular boys' names in 2009. A reasonable inference from the first set is that the parents used the choice of names to emphasize their son's ethnic heritage. The second set, in contrast, seems to say "You are American, and any other cultural influences are of secondary importance."

Whether a person's first and last names communicate the same or different cultural messages says more about the parents' intent than about the individual. As adults, people may wind up choosing a cultural identity different from the one intended for them. Furthermore, the fact that parents settle on names that are congruent or discordant with the family name doesn't explain the reason for the choice. Rather than expressing their own wishes, they could be yielding to pressures from relatives or others--so that the choice of a name might have been reluctant rather than enthusiastic.

A reasonable way of looking at last names--and their relationship to first names--is as a source for cultural hypotheses that can be investigated, rather than as a basis for definitive inferences.

Image source:
Immigrants in 1902 entering the United States through Ellis Island, the main immigrant entry facility of the United States from 1892 to 1954. (Library of Congress)

Check out my most recent book, The Myth of Race, which debunks common misconceptions, as well as my other books at

The Myth of Race is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble

Friend/Like me on Facebook:

Follow me on Twitter:

Visit my website: