And You Thought You Had Problems Researching the Ancestry of Your Last Name?

In the United States, the most popular family surname is Smith. As per the 2010 census, about 0.8 percent of Americans have it. In Vietnam, the most popular surname name is Nguyen. The estimate for how many people answer to it? Somewhere between 30 and 40 percent of the country’s population.

You think tracing the Smith family is difficult? Try tracing the Nguyen family!

An article by Dan Nosowitz in the Atlas Obscura web site states:

“Nguyen doesn’t indicate much more than that you are Vietnamese. Someone with the [surname of] Nguyen is going to have basically no luck tracing their heritage back beyond a generation or two, will not be able to use search engines to find out much of anything about themselves.”

Portrait of Bao Dai (born Nguyễn Phúc Vĩnh Thụy), the last emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty.

Nosowitz also points out that the existence of family names in Vietnam dates to 111 BC, the beginning of a lengthy thousand-year occupation of the country by the Han Dynasty in China. That’s about a thousand years or so before European people started adopting last names. Before this time, nobody really knows how the Vietnamese handled names, due to lack of written records. However, the Chinese have had family names for thousands of years, sometimes indicating occupation, social status, or membership of a minority group.

You can read Dan Nosowitz’s interesting article at: http://bit.ly/2ovcHDK.

One Comment

Phew. 30-40%! Thanks for writing about this – I had no idea.
This reminds me of being in Bali, Indonesia, where the traditional naming convention is to call all firstborn children “Wayan.” It means: “eldest.” (It can also mean “fifth.”) Logically it then follows that every family with a child has a Wayan. For more, here’s a link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Balinese_name.

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