What’s in a (Hungarian) Name?

If you have a Hungarian surname, chances are, when meeting new people, you’ll encounter some variation of the following questions :

You’re last name is Nagy?  My wife’s sister’s friend’s last name is Nagy.  Are you related?

Whether it’s their baseball coach from middle school, or their cousin’s next-door-neighbor who shares your surname, this new person will inevitably ask if you’re related. Maybe names like Juhasz and Balogh sound vaguely ethnic, yet possibly tribal. Perhaps you and the new person’s dentist both descend from the same band of wandering gypsies, but more likely, if you and Dr. Nemeth were to each take a DNA test, you’d share no discernible common ancestors.

Note: Some particularly unusual surnames will correctly suggest a relationship between two people. This post relates to only the most common names.

In my experience, everyone knows a Horvath. When I married my husband, I chose to keep my maiden name, fully aware that the questions would persist. On our honeymoon in Hawaii, we began chatting with another newlywed couple on the beach. Within moments of meeting, the wife asked, “I know a Horvath in California — are you related to him?”

It’s a common assumption that all people who share a particular central European-sounding name must be related, but this is not usually the case. The odds that some person you meet named Szabo or Kovacs is related to your old college roommate with the same surname is very unlikely. In most cases, it’s akin to meeting a Bob Jones in California and asking if he’s related to your friend’s cousin, Lisa Jones, in Maine.

Behind the Names, an online authority on names, lists Horvath as the 5th most common surname in Hungary in 2006, as originally reported by Hungary’s Central Office for Administrative and Electronic Public Services. 1 Below are the top 20, ordered by rank and total number of people in Hungary with each surname.

1Nagy239,310
2Kovács221,687
3Tóth216,758
4Szabó212,586
5Horváth201,059
6Varga139,764
7Kiss134,305
8Molnár109,178
9Németh93,990
10Farkas83,346
11Balogh80,113
12Papp53,847
13Takács53,402
14Juhász52,495
15Lakatos45,051
16Mészáros41,061
17Simon38,481
18Oláh38,311
19Fekete35,179
20Rácz35,109

In 2006, the population of Hungary was about 10 million. Looking at the numbers in the list above, that means about 1 in 42 people were named Nagy, 1 in 45 were Kovács, and 1 in 50 were Horváth.

With the number of Hungarian immigrants who settled in the U.S., it’s no surprise these names are pretty common in certain parts of America as well. Ignoring alternate spellings (Horvat, Horwath, etc), in 2010 there were 15,302 people living in the U.S. with the surname Horvath.2 The 2010 US census recorded 162,253 unique surnames that occurred at least 100 times. The top 5 are listed below.

1Smith2,442,977
2Johnson1,932,812
3Williams1,625,252
4Brown1,437,026
5Jones1,425,470

As might be expected, Smith and Johnson top the list. In 2010, the population of the United States was about 325 Million3. That puts the odds of any given person in the U.S. having the surname Smith at 1 in 133. The 5th most common surname, Jones, would be found in about 1 in 228 people.  Compared to the population and name occurrence statistics from Hungary, you’re about three times as likely to meet a Nagy in Budapest as you are to meet a Smith in Washington, D.C., and over four times as likely to meet a Horvath in Szeged as you are to meet a Jones in New York City.

On the U.S. census list, Horvath ranked #2,379. That means 158,974 surnames are less common. Below are a few examples.

SurnameRankOccurrence
Chester#2,40815,066
Jameson#2,71413,255
Paxton#3,04911,754
Allman#4,4477,977
Appleton#6,1325,588
Wendell#8,2444,020

These were chosen at random, but there are thousands of other “American-sounding” names that are less common than might be expected. Toth, which is #3 on Hungary’s list, occurred 19,606 times in the 2010 U.S. census, ranking it #1,826. It may surprise some to learn that the surname Toth is more common in the US than the surname Clinton, which ranks #2,242, with only 16,263 occurrences.4

Hungary is a pretty small country, so shouldn’t all the descendants of Hungarian immigrants be at least a little bit related to each other? Not exactly.

At 93,073 square kilometers, modern-day Hungary is just slightly larger in land mass than the state of Maine, but prior to the Treaty of Trianon in 1920, it was much larger, covering 325,411 square kilometers5.  Before 1920, an estimated 650,000-700,000 ethnic Hungarians from the much-larger Hungary came to the United States6. Per the 2010 U.S. census, there were 1,563,081 people living in America who reported having Hungarian ancestry.

Not only are today’s Nemeths and Vargas in America descended from a pool of hundreds of thousands of immigrants, but also, their names are not indicative of any common lineage. This is due to the meaning of the most common names. Let’s take another look at the Hungarian top 20, but this time with translations7.

NameName TypeMeaning
1NagyDescriptiveLarge
2KovácsOccupationalBlacksmith
3TóthLocativeSlovak
4SzabóOccupationalTailor
5HorváthLocativeCroatian
6VargaOccupationalCobbler
7KissDescriptiveSmall
8MolnárOccupationalMiller
9NémethLocativeGerman
10FarkasDescriptiveWolf-like
11BaloghDescriptiveLeft-Handed
12PappOccupationalCleric
13TakácsOccupationalWeaver
14JuhászOccupationalShepherd
15LakatosOccupationalLocksmith
16MészárosOccupationalButcher
17SimonPatronymicSimon
18OláhLocativeRomanian
19FeketeDescriptiveDark-Haired
20RáczLocativeSerbian

Most of the names are occupational in origin. A Molnár is a miller, and a Miller may have hailed from any part of the former kingdom of Hungary. As with any occupational surnames, one wouldn’t expect a Baker in Florida to be related to a Baker in the United Kingdom. Any relatedness would be purely coincidental. Descriptive names like Nagy (Large) or Kiss (Small) refer to physical characteristics. Fekete (Dark-Haired) could be compared to someone with the surname Black, but we wouldn’t expect all people named Black to be related.

Locative surnames, like Oláh (Romanian) or Rácz (Serbian), refer to people from a specific geographic location (at some point in time centuries ago), but over time, people migrated. Shepherd families, whose sheep needed new fields to graze upon, often moved from village to village. If a mine had been cleared of its resources, the miners would travel great distances in search of new work. Locative surnames aren’t often indicative of the homeland of one’s recent ancestors.

For these reasons, it’s highly unlikely for a Toth or Nemeth to be related to just any random person with the same surname. Unless I meet a Horvath whose ancestors were from the same village as mine, we probably aren’t related. See this page from my Austrian-Hungarian genetic genealogy tutorial to find out how I learned my dear friend and I aren’t related. Even though our great-grandfathers were born in adjacent counties in Hungary, both emigrated from Hungary to South Bethlehem, PA around 1910, and both had the surname Horvath, she and I share such a small amount of DNA, any relatedness is too distant to be relevant.

 

  1. http://www.nyilvantarto.hu/hu/
  2. https://projects.newsday.com/databases/long-island/census-last-names/?where=name^horvath&offset=0
  3. https://www.census.gov/search-results.html?q=2010+population&page=1&stateGeo=none&searchtype=web&cssp=Typeahead
  4. https://projects.newsday.com/databases/long-island/census-last-names/?where=name^Clinton&offset=0
  5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treaty_of_Trianon
  6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hungarian_Americans
  7. http://heraldry.sca.org/names/magyarnames1012.html

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