What it’s like to have a common last name

Why pronouncing ethnic names is important

David Lee first figured out his last name was common when he discovered actor Bruce Lee.

The Toronto-based photo editor was in Grade 3.

“At first it was like, ‘Oh, there’s actually another person that’s not a member of my family that has the same last name as me.”

Lee switched schools in Grade 4 and was surrounded by other people of East Asian descent. Slowly, he began to realize how common Lee was, even among classmates. Over time, Lee became fascinated.

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“Even though both my first and last name are quite common, I feel like my identity isn’t diluted at all,” he told Global News. “In fact, quite the opposite. Having so many people with the same last name is empowering in a way — like being part of a huge family.”

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He didn’t realize how popular his name truly was until he went to university.

“I remember in first-year university meeting another David Lee but he was white,” he said. “It didn’t occur to me that there’s whole swathes of people named Lee that aren’t Asian. That was eye-opening to me.”

How surnames work

Steve Carr, a professor of biology at Memorial University of Newfoundland and an expert in genetics, told Global News surnames are usually passed on from the father.

“Sometimes a woman marrying into a culture may lose her surname in one generation,” he explained via email. “Also, the frequency of a name may increase locally if a particular family runs heavily to boys. Thus, some small Newfoundland output communities run to much more than 50 per cent identical surnames.”

He added that in Newfoundland, some names stick out.

Credit: Laura Whelan. Laura Whelan

“A check of the St John’s phone book will show this, also that there will be column after column of certain surnames not seen elsewhere, notably Noseworthy.”

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Carr added that in English-speaking countries in North America, Smith is the most common last name.

While there is very little data on the most popular surnames in Canada, some independent research has found patterns. In 2006, for example, last names like Tremblay, Gagnon and Roy were the most common in Quebec and in 2008, a report by the Vancouver Sun named Lee the most common last name in the Lower Mainland.

In the past, surnames were often the result of occupations or trades, the BBC noted — which is why names like Smith, Cook, Wright (woodworker) and Turner (metal/wood maker) are so common.

Surnames could stem from nicknames (like Fox or White) or baptismal or Christian names, the BBC said.

Carr added that sometimes surnames depend on whether the person identifies as male or female.

“Polish names end in ‘ski’ or ‘ska’ depending on whether the person is male or female,” he said. “In many cases over several generations in North America, the ‘ska’ inflection has been dropped by daughters who continue by the father’s name, as is the North American custom.”

Figuring out your name is common

Bindu Patel, a registered nurse based in Toronto, said she didn’t find her last name odd or strange until Grade 1.

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“My last name was always a repeat conversation in school by students and teachers,” she said. “Other kids asked if me and so so were siblings or cousins.”

Patel, a common last name in India’s state of Gujarat, is one of the most common last names for Indians living in the U.S., Oxford University Press reported.

Patel would often get asked if she was related to other Patels or dealt with the disbelief over how popular her name actually was. The name is so common, Patels often end up marrying other Patels.

READ MORE: COMMENTARY — Why you should keep your last name once you’re married

Before Patel got married, she went to city hall to obtain a marriage licence.

“The clerk could not believe the both of us were Patels and all four of our parents were Patels and all eight of our grandparents were Patels,” she said. “It blew him away that we had no blood relation.”

She added her family also made a family tree to triple check that she and her husband were not related.

But her last name never made her lack confidence.

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“I feel good about my last name,” she said. “It gives me an identity, makes me feel connected to my roots. I know wherever I go in the world, I will meet or hear of another Patel.”

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And because last names have such rich histories — many are translated to English from other languages — sometimes there is even debate over if the name is spelled right or wrong.

Marcy McMillan, a communication professional, said she is often asked if her last name is spelled with a “Mc” or “Mac.”

“There is debate in my family on whether or not we have the right spelling,” she said. “Most people automatically assume that I am Irish because of the spelling when really my grandparents immigrated from rural Scotland.”

‘Wishing I had a cooler last name’

Peggy Chen, a youth worker in Vancouver, said that growing up in Taiwan, it was a given you shared your name with others.

“It wasn’t a big deal that I shared the same last name with friends and neighbours,” she said. “It was only when I immigrated to Vancouver at the age of six that the commonality of my last name was brought to my attention.”

As a new kid with limited English, peers and teachers pointed out others who shared the same surname.

“Common last names would mainly be brought up as jokes, that the Asians hang out together because they’re related to each other or telling a new kid to hang out with their ‘brother or sister.'”

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Growing up, Chen wished her surname was different.

I remember growing up wishing I had a cooler last name that was more unique and had more than one syllable. I felt envious of friends who had last names they didn’t have to share with anyone else,” she continued.

“As I’ve navigated through my cultural identity as a Taiwanese-Canadian, I’ve come to feel proud of my culture and the history behind my name. It may not be unique, but it’s still my name, and I no longer feel ashamed or embarrassed of it.”

More than a last name

Ishu Singh of Toronto said his last name is rooted in his religion of Sikhism. Singh means lion or tiger and can be linked to royalty or the word king. In Sikhism, the name Singh is often given to men. It can be used as a last name or a middle name (for women, the common last name or middle name is Kaur).

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Singh doesn’t mind having a popular last name. Many Sikhs also wear turbans and have beards, often an indicator they might share the last name. Singh says this can lead to stereotyping or generalizing a community.

“Whenever I go to somewhere like a hotel, somewhere I would usually need to give my name, they come up to me and greet me,” he explained. “It leaves me with some mixed feelings. On one hand, they recognize me. On the other, not every Sikh is named Singh.”

READ MORE: Should women be required by law to take their husband’s surname?

Jaskanwal Singh is also proud of his common last name, but remembers the times he faced discrimination for it.

“I remember someone once making a comment on how common the last name Singh was in relation to how many people ‘kept on coming to Canada’ from India,” he said. “I think it’s a sign of changing times that more people are becoming familiar with the last name now.”