The Mighty Smiths

by Bob Brooke

Some names are more common than others. The most common family name in the world is Chang. More than 75 million Chinese own that moniker. But the name that's most common in Western countries is Smith.

Americans no longer need to keep up with the Joneses, only the Smiths-all 3.3 million of them. And there are at least 500,000 more in England and Wales, nearly 100,000 in Scotland, more than 75,000 in Canada, over 30,000 in Ireland, and probably another 50,000 in Australia and New Zealand. In each of those countries, about 1 out of every 100 people is named Smith.

The name Smith comes from the Old English word smite, which means "to strike." Smiths worked with metals, using hammers or other tools to smite the metal and make something useful like horseshoes, plows, tools, or swords. These implements were important to the people in the village, which must have made a Smith a prominent figure in town. That must be part of the reason why in every nation there are people whose names translate as "Smith."

For example, some of the more obvious translations of the English Smith include: Smid, Smidt, Smit, Smed, from the Dutch; Schmidt, Schmitt, Schmid, Schmitz from the German; Smid from Norwegian; and Smed from Swedish. The French took a more literal translation from "ferrus," the Latin word for iron--Ferrier, Ferron, Faure, Lefevre, Lefebvre, as did the Italians with Feffaro and Ferraro and the Portuguese with Ferreiro. The Spanish, meanwhile, took their version of Smith from "herrero," the Spanish word for Blacksmith. The name of former Presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro just doesn't have the same ring when translated to Geraldine Smith.

Many Eastern European languages have the same roots so their translations of Smith are similar-Kovac from Bulgarian; Kovar from Czech; Kowal from Polish; Koval and Kuznetsov from Russian; Covaciu from Romanian; and Kovacs from Hungarian. Again, imagine comedian Ernie Kovacs with a name like Ernie Smith.

But some translations of Smith stand out with no common root: Haddad in Arabic; Temirzi in Turkish; Darbinian in Armenian; Ahangar in Persian; Skmiton in Greek; Feller in Catalan; Raudsepp and Kalevi in Estonian; and Rautio and Seppanen in Finnish. Then there's also Golf and Gowan in Welsh and Goff and Gough in Gaelic.

There are also a number of specialized Smiths, including Goldsmith, Hammersmith, Silversmith, and Naismith (he made nails). And in addition to the millions of just plain Smiths in the United States, there are Smithers, Smithsons, and Smythes. All of them were workers in metal, or children of those workers.

Amidst all those metal-minded people, there's one Smith whose ancestors probably never picked up a hammer--Smithfield. These people got their names from the Old English word for "smooth field," a location.

So while a family's present-day surname may be Smith or some variation of Smith, that doesn't necessarily mean that they came solely from British ancestry.

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