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How do you determine the ethnicity of last names?

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Quick Answer

There are a number of ways to determine the ethnicity of last names, including online databases such as Ancestry, The Internet Surname Database, the Family Education Family Name History tool and MyHeritage. The most popular last names for people in the United States are place-based names, which comprise approximately 43 percent of the population’s last names. They are frequently based on a region or denote the place of origin. Specific prefixes and suffixes also denote patronymic ancestry.

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Place-based names determine ethnicity based on the country of origin, region or province of origin, geographic features or estates. Common prefixes for place-based surnames are “from” are “de” in French, “van” in Dutch and “von” in German.

Many Old English surnames denote both ethnicity and occupation, such as the obvious “Baker” or “Miller,” or “Barker” the word for a leather tanner, “Cooper” for a barrel maker, or "Wainwright" for a wagon maker.

Some common patronymic prefixes are “O-” for an Irish surname, “Bar-” or “Ben-” for a Hebrew surname, and “Ibn-” for Arabic surnames. Many last names change over time. The original spelling of a last name gives clues to its ethnicity, for example, the German “Mueller” becomes “Miller” in the United States.

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