Part 1 - France

Many of us dream of the day when the GRO indexes are computerised. We must look with envy to France where this has been done in part - birth registrations - for two separate periods, 1891-1915 and 1916-1940.

These two databases of the surnames registered at birth reveal:

  • names unique to each period
  • names that disappear
  • names that appear
  • leading names
  • regional variations
  • national trends

1891-1915: Number of Names

There are 489,000 births indexed in this database, [for] 36% of which the surnames only occur once.

1916-1940: Number of Names

There were 605,438 births registered in this second period, of which 172,916 surnames or almost 30% only occur once.

Total size of the surname stock

The databases record only births. The size of the surname stock must be of a different order [to the number of births]. This is extrapolated from the databases as:

  • 300,000-400,000 before World War 1
  • 450,000-550,000 before World War 2
Average number of surnames per département
  • 16,400 for 1890-1915
  • 22,500 for 1916-1940
Disappearing surnames
  • An average of 38% of surnames disappear or 151,600 individual names disappear between the two periods.
  • 76% of these disappearing surnames are uniquely occurring.
  • Certain names disappear even though they were formerly well represented e.g. Chapuiset, with 18 births in the Pre-World War One period, completely disappeared after 1914. [However Google seems to refute this. - MS]
  • However, for every 100 names that disappeared pre-World War 1, 177 new ones appeared pre-World War 2.
Highest-ranking French Surnames
1 Martin 6 Richard
2 Bernard 7 Moreau
3 Petit 8 Dubois
4 Durand 9 Robert
5 Thomas 10 Laurent
  • Martin is the most common French surname in both periods
  • It is present in 81 out of 90 départements
  • 66% of French common surnames are similarly derived from forenames

But French common surnames were not predominantly diffuse like English ones

  • Only 1% were to be found in more than 30 départements
  • And 66% were restricted just to a single département
Regional high-ranking surnames pre-World War 1

15th Lefebre 64th Lemaire
24th Muller 72nd Schmitt (Alsace alone)
34th Lefevre 73rd Marie (Normandy alone)
39th Legrand 86th Marty
41st Meyer 93rd Caron (NE France)
55th Fabre (Languedoc)

Nationally-distributed high-ranking surnames pre-World War 1
1st Martin 57th Gaillard
4th Durand 85th Benoit
17th Bertrand 97th Riviere

(Source: French data translated and condensed from Pierre Darlu, Anna Degioanni and Jacques Ruffie Quelques statistiques sur la distribution des Patronymes en France, which appeared in Population Vol 52 Part 3, 1997.)

Part 2- Current Comparisons


There are 85,000 different surnames in Denmark, but 64% of the population is included in the 50 most common. This figure is derived from the computerised Danish Central Civil Register.
Coverage, 1968 (Denmark): 1972 (Greenland)
Archival file contains info on c7.7 million people (Dec 2002)


Estonians acquired family names in large numbers in the 1820s-1830s. A database of Estonian family names, Corpus Nominum Gentilium Estonicorum, is to be released on the web. This database will "consist of two parts: the database of original homes of family names (73,928 entries) and the database of changed names (78,777 entries). The database is linked with a digital map projection that enables to search data about the territorial distribution of a name... The variety of names among such a small nation was exceptionally wide: 41,000 different names (in a number of cases it was also caused by a (purposely) different spelling), among them ca 3/4 unique, i.e., they occurred only in one community, in one family." Source: Icos 2002 meeting abstracts.


Central Finnish surname registry


The Database of surnames in the Netherlands was launched in January 2000 by the Meertens Instituut in Amsterdam. Intended to include articles about a name, an interpretation of the origins, early attestations, genealogical references, a list of variations, an overview of the frequency and geographical distribution, etcetera.


In a telephone directory analysis, 50% of the country’s surnames were only listed once.


Surnames have a very long history in China, but there are only 3,100 surnames in current use compared with nearly 12,000 in the past.

  • The 5 most common surnames, Zhang, Wang, Li, Zhao and Chen, are shared by 350 million people.
  • The 20 most common surnames cover 50% percent of the population.
  • 70% of the population have one of the 45 most common names.
  • The surnames of the remaining 30% are comparatively rare.
  • In Shanghai, there are only 408 surnames in use (out of an urban population of 7.8 million).
  • In comparison our Smith is only carried by 800,000 people or 1.5% of the UK population.

Until a few months ago [2002] it was illegal for people of the same surname in South Korea to marry each other - and the majority of the population shared just 5 common surnames.

Originally a poster presentation for a Society of Genealogists One-Name Day, August 1999, prepared by Philip Dance