Where have all the Smiths gone?

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Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science asks where asks where all the Smiths have gone:

Sam Roberts writes,

In 1984, according to the Social Security Administration, nearly 3.4 million Smiths lived in the United States. In 1990, the census counted 2.5 million. By 2000, the Smith population had declined to fewer than 2.4 million.

Where did all the Smiths go from 1984 to 1990? I can believe it flatlined after 1990, but it’s hard to believe that the count could have changed so much in 6 years.

Perhaps it’s the difference between the SSA and Census methods of counting

Here’s another explanation, it’s the inverse of the phenomenon of those claiming Native American ancestry in the United States doubling in 10 years. Many Smiths were at one point Schmidts, who knows if some of them didn’t revert now that WASP surnames aren’t as value-added? I strongly suspect that the number of ethnic whites in the USA is overstated because those with mixed-ancestry emphasize the most non-traditional quanta of their heritage. That means if someone is 1/4 German & 3/4 English they might declare their ethnicity as German. I’ll probably have to look up some social science on this question at some point….

Note: the rank of Schmidt increased in terms of rank by 33 from 1990 to 2000.

Update: I took a bunch of German names and their English or Anglicized variants and compared their ranks between 1990 and 2000. I’m sure that the trend you see is the combined result of the decrease in proportion of those with very common Anglo names because of the decline of the non-Hispanic white fraction as well as a moderate stream of new German immigrants. But who knows?

Smith - Schmidt +33
Shepard -37 Shafer +254
Baker -1 Becker +74
Miller +1 Muller +147
Taylor -3 Schneider +57
Hill +8 Berg +122
Miner -202 Bergman +2
Brown +1 Braun +176
Dyer -111 Farber +1090
Finch -115 Fink +183
Fox +19 Fuchs +613
Duke -78 Herzog -341
Hunter -23 Jaeger +631
Buck +18 Hirsch +241
Young -3 Jung +840
Hoover +39 Huber +126
Cook -4 Koch +79
King -5 Koenig +366
Cooper -2 Kruger +191
Long - Lang +43
Mason -14 Maurer +160
Butcher +68 Metzger +424
Piper -239 Pfeiffer +372
Knight -44 Ritter +161
Barber -41 Scherer +1029
Black -11 Schwartz +102
Roper -72 Seiler +137
Weaver +11 Weber +71
White -6 Weiss +131

Update II: Proportion of German Americans dropping faster than English Americans?

Update III: Took some Census 2000 data and produced this….

Ancestry First Ancestry Second Ancestry Total Ratio of First to Second Ancestry
German 30165672 12674039 42839711 2.38
Irish 19279211 11245588 30524799 1.71
English 16623938 7885754 24509692 2.11
Italian 12836020 2799547 15635567 4.59
French 4870907 3436659 8307566 1.42
Scottish 3142893 1747688 4890581 1.8
Dutch 2552688 1986681 4539369 1.28
Norwegian 3241637 1236088 4477725 2.62
Scotch-Irish 3283065 1036167 4319232 3.17
Swedish 2436825 1561478 3998303 1.56
Welsh 886139 867655 1753794 1.02
Danish 855797 574927 1430724 1.49
Portuguese 913859 259832 1173691 3.52
Greek 942723 210315 1153038 4.48
British 828089 207044 1035133 4
Swiss 535408 374661 910069 1.43
Austrian 433292 297044 730336 1.46
Finnish 435446 188073 623519 2.32
Scandinavian 308051 117048 425099 2.63
Belgian 217524 130754 348278 1.66
Sicilian 68290 16885 85175 4.04
Celtic 53438 12200 65638 4.38
British Isles 42137 7941 50078 5.31
Luxemburger 26378 18761 45139 1.41
Icelander 30388 12328 42716 2.46
Basque 32121 9690 41811 3.31

I think the ratio of First to Second ancestry is probably a pretty good sense out admixture/outmarriage rates. Look at the Welsh; not very distinct from other British Isles groups and far less numerous, ergo lots of second ancestry.

Update IV: Median age for people of English ancestry is 44. For German it is 37. Same with Irish. What’s up with that?

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42 Comments

  1. Granted this is fairly absurd and is only meant as a thought experiment….but if Smiths had an inordinate number of daughters compared to sons, then the result would be that the number of Smiths would decline over time since children usually take their father’s surname

  2. GEH, 
     
    Funny, that’s exactly the situation in my family.

  3. surnames do go extinct in this way actually. this was a serious problem during the augustan period as senatorial lineages kept winking out at the same time that the emperor was trying to prevent too much promotion from the equestrian order. but this is like drift, it works its magic at low N’s.

  4. The Social Security Administration in 1984 might have included women who have a maiden name of Smith, but took on their spouse’s last name.

  5. Might the Mormons have a considerable number of German names in their ranks, hence the rapid increase ;)

  6. From my perception of the German-American experience, reversion of Anglicized surnames back to German is probably very rare. First, after building up generations of reputation around the name Smith, few people will ditch that in favor of Schmidt, especially if there’s a lot of government paperwork involved. There’s also no social movement to encourage reGermanization. Like all whites, we’re not supposed to dwell on our ethnic identity. We all speak English; foreign language instruction is very poor; and most of our families have been here for so many generations that ties to German culture have eroded and/or were downplayed as part of the “more Catholic than the Pope” defense against the anti-German hysteria of 1917-1918. 
     
    As for the rising rank of various German surnames 1990-2000, I bet the sample sizes are too small to be very meaningful. For example, my parents raised the number of American families with my surname by about 0.05% when they arrived in 1968. Also, many German surnames got translated into American English in multiple ways that don’t show up on your table: Muller, Mueller, and Miller are all cognate surnames, as are Weiss and Wiess, Shafer/Shaffer/Shaeffer/Schaffer/Schaeffer, any name ending in -man/-mann, etc. 
     
    Finally, don’t forget that many Ashkenazim have Yiddish/German surnames; immigration from Israel could account for the rising rank of Farber, Fuchs, and Jung.

  7. wrt the median ages, I suspect that the German, English and Irish groups are some of the earliest and most assimilated groups, and so the typical American is from these groups – probably the boomer generation is tilting them towards an older median age, as post WW2 there was a population explosion in this group and since then, less than replacement values.

  8. A lot of Smiths change their names. I used to be a Smith. Seemed like no name at all.

  9. BTW, all else equal, women are more reluctant to marry Smiths, and Joneses too, for that matter. Katherine Hepburn was a famous example, This could be a factor, one that could be checked if there is data of fertility and last names

  10. One might think, not too farfetchedly, that having the name ‘Smith’ might correlate with cultural characteristics, i.e. Smith’s have a really low fertility rate, and very importantly, ‘went over the demographic cliff’ far earlier than other groups. What was the median age of ‘Smiths’ in 1984, higher than average? 
     
    Never heard of people changing their name before because it’s Smith, so I guess I’m living and learning.

  11. Regarding the drops in German, Irish and English Americans, there was a rise in those who reported ‘American’ ancestry would account for the ‘disappearance’ of the those previous ancestries. I guess people are starting to loose their ancestral identities.

  12. I just thought I would comment…most Germans in the USA live in the Midwest, while most English live in the Southeast (Mormons are mostly English, hence Colorado City Arizona is the most English city in the nation) or they live on the east coast. This is shown in this map http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Census-2000-Data-Top-US-Ancestries-by-County.svg 
     
    As you are probably aware, Midwesterners have more kids than easterners (but Mormons have lots of kids so if you exclude the Mormons I bet the English are really old).

  13. Also, I doubt the number of Germans in the USA is inflated. The United States has a long history of German immigration. There were so many Germans here when the US declared independence that the Government was pressured to translate their documents into German. there was a steady stream of Germans after that (because they were north European so no one tried to exclude them and they were the largest group in Europe).  
     
    And, after all this immigration I know that just before WW1 there were a few Midwestern states where 1/3 or more of the population was BORN in Germany. Then there was another wave after WW1. There should be lots of Germans here, undoubtedly more than there are English people (who really had 1 big wave).  
     
    By the way, German really isnt considered exotic where I live (the Midwest). Everyone is mostly German so the other stuff gets emphasized if possible. maybe its different on the west coast.

  14. To me, the obvious explanation for the decline in the name Smith is varying birthrates among different ethnic groups and increased immigration. Generally, the longer you’re family has been in the U.S., the fewer children you have. Americans with English ancestry (e.g. Smiths) have very low birth rates, probably below replacement rate, plus they tend to have children later. In essence, the Smiths are old and dying faster than they can be replaced. This accounts for their higher median age as well.

  15. Razib - 
     
    As someone of half German / half English extraction with an practically unpronounceable germanic surname, I can tell you that the number of German surnamed Americans anglicizing their family names is incredibly small. Where I live in Virginia there are a few Millers that were once Muellers in the early 1700s, but other than John (Deutchendorfer) Denver and Doris (Kappelhoff) Day, I can’t think of any American with a German surname who would feel the need to anglicize his or her surname in the 20th or 21st century. That may not be the case for Jewish immigrants with Germanic surnames, who more frequently anglicized their names, but gentile German immigrants from the mid 1800s onward pretty much kept their names.  
     
    Similarly the opposite. Americans of German extraction outnumber those of Anglo extraction, as they have in every census report from around 1900 onwards(though often, as in my case they overlap). Growing up in the Midwest, I can attest to the regional taste for beer and bratwurst(especially in Wisconsin) and very clumsy and clueless attempts at celebrating German heritage (Oktoberfest and fat American guys running around in Lederhosen), but there’s really no such thing as German-Americans – they all very rapidly became/become deracinated unhyphenated Americans, and it beggars the imagination that some Smith is going to get in touch with his “ethnic” heritage by changing his name to Schmidt.  
     
    So I think you’ll have to look for another explanation of the declining Smiths.

  16. Why do Americans commonly pronounce German “stein” names as “steen”? Yet they never say “Eensteen”.

  17. bioIgnoramus, 
     
    Young Frankenstein
     
    Seriously, it’s probably the rarity of the Germanic “ei” vowel sound in English. My surname has “ei” in it and the average stranger pronounces it “ee.” 
     
    Einstein is so famous everyone gets it right, but most people are unable to extrapolate the wider rule of how to pronounce “ei” from his name. 
     
    Unrelated, I have a pet peeve when Texans refer to the German-settled town of New Braunfels as “New Brunsfeld.”

  18. I can tell you that the number of German surnamed Americans anglicizing their family names is incredibly small.  
     
    it was mostly around and after world war i, not now.

  19. I’ll admit that I find Razib’s initial posting as totally mysterious as he did, and none of the explanations suggestioned seem very plausible. 
     
    Basically, the number of “Smiths” in America dropped by almost 30% in the six years from 1984-1990. Offhand, this seems as totally astonishing as if a couple of our biggest states disappeared during that period. 
     
    Maybe we’d had a gigantic number of Martian anthropology students doing field work here under the most innocuous assumed name, and they all finished their studies and went home again. 
     
    Actually wasn’t “Smith” the name used by all the aliens in that Buckaroo Banzai movie, which came out right around 1984—so maybe the Martians got scared their cover had been blown!

  20. A lot of Smiths change their names. I used to be a Smith. Seemed like no name at all. 
     
    That’s a very logical explanation and the only reasonable one so far.

  21. “Like all whites, we’re not supposed to dwell on our ethnic identity.”  
     
    hey–It’s ok if you call it by a nationality or linguistic group. You can get around it that way. For instance, you can say Henry Ford was really something because he was of Irish descent, or American, but definitely not because he was white or European. Or a man.  
    A co-worker’s day care center, quite the multi-cult, makes a curious deal out of St. Patrick’s day. Kids in my nun-run school never did, just a little green hair dye and the odd shamrock plastered to the blackboard. Now it seems schools are getting the message that if some kids’ ancestral particulars matter enough to be expressed in construction paper, then so should everyone’s. 
    No idea about why the name Smith is going the way of the dodo bird, but there’s at least 10 other names i wish it would take with it.

  22. In Ireland, as a general rule, if your name is “Smith” (spelled Smith) – you are of Native Irish descent and your name was originally McGowan. If on the other hand your name is Smith (spelled Smythe), then you are of Anglo-Irish descent.

  23. Luis: 
     
    A lot of Smiths change their names. I used to be a Smith. Seemed like no name at all. 
     
    That’s a very logical explanation and the only reasonable one so far.
     
     
    C’mon—30% of ALL the Smiths in America changed their last names during a single six year period???!!! 
     
    I think my own Martian anthropologist suggestion is a little more plausible…

  24. I think it’s one of things where, if you point out the obvious explanation, you vanish too.

  25. I’ll go with the explanation of ZBicyclist from the original thread: typo. A less plausible explanation is that SSA has a radically different methodology than the census. 
     
    But the decline from census 1990 to census 2000 is surprising on its own. The total population of Schmidts is comparable to that decline, so that isn’t the answer. (+33 ranks for Schmidts is about 10% increase)

  26. The obvious explanation will have to do with error or enumeration since 30% of all Smiths did not change their name in 6 years, or die off, emigrate, etc.  
     
    Something is clearly not accurate. 
     
    Anyway reminds me of the rapidly disappearing blue eyes: 
     
    “About half of Americans born at the turn of the 20th century had blue eyes, according to a 2002 Loyola University study in Chicago. By mid-century that number had dropped to a third. Today only about one 1 of every 6 Americans has blue eyes, said Mark Grant, the epidemiologist who conducted the study.”

  27. Where I grew up in eastern Wisconsin, where EVERYBODY is at least part-German, nobody anymore seems to really care much any more about the German traditions, except for brat & beer fests. 
     
    In the big machine-tool & heavy equipment firm that my father punched a ticket in, there were hundreds of German Wehrmacht vets who came over after WWII & settled in the Milwaukee area. They were just sick of the old country & the two world wars, my dad told me, and used to talk about their sufferings when drunk. 
     
    When I went to Munich for the first time, I thought I was in a Milwaukee designed by God—gemutlichkeit everywhere. In the fifties in Milwaukee, people used to greet each other on the street even if they were total strangers—no more of that, sadly.

  28.  
    Anyway reminds me of the rapidly disappearing blue eyes:
     
     
    yes.

  29. Luis: 
     
    “”A lot of Smiths change their names. I used to be a Smith. Seemed like no name at all.” 
     
    That’s a very logical explanation and the only reasonable one so far.” 
     
    C’mon—30% of ALL the Smiths in America changed their last names during a single six year period???!!! 
     
    I think my own Martian anthropologist suggestion is a little more plausible…
     
     
    Ok, it sounds extreme, really but I understand that it’s easy to change one’s name under US law. Just some paperwork.  
     
    Also Luke Lea claims to be a former Smith, so he should know something about the matter directly. I can understand well why someone with a too common name may want something more personal – and eventually make it official too, specially if that is legally easy and socially acceptable.

  30. Anyway reminds me of the rapidly disappearing blue eyes: 
     
    “About half of Americans born at the turn of the 20th century had blue eyes, according to a 2002 Loyola University study in Chicago. By mid-century that number had dropped to a third. Today only about one 1 of every 6 Americans has blue eyes, said Mark Grant, the epidemiologist who conducted the study.”
     
     
    That should be more easily explained, probably: socio-biological reasons such as immigration, admixture and even simple adaptation to a sunnier climate than the original North European one (assuming there’s an evolutionary reason for blue eyes or that they are directly linked to other traits such as very pale skin) can account for it somewhat easily.  
     
    I just don’t believe in “Martian” explanations. Sorry.

  31. Maybe the “missing” Smiths got married and didn’t keep their maiden names?

  32. Looking through all that more carefully, I’d guess the case of the disappearance of Mr. Smith must be crappy data. I had a prof back whenever who did a stint in the Bureau of Labor stats and he loved to give his class virtual tours of the sausage factory that was the BLS. The Census Bureau probably isn’t any better.

  33. As one who worked for the USG for more than a decade, I think that j mct’s’ prof has the right idea & it’s another of paying taxes for champagne and getting near-beer in return. Crap is one of the USG’s major product lines.

  34. Actually wasn’t “Smith” the name used by all the aliens in that Buckaroo Banzai movie, which came out right around 1984—so maybe the Martians got scared their cover had been blown! 
     
    Actually, they all had the name “John” with different last names.  
     
    John, btw, has gone from the #1 name to #20

  35. Actually wasn’t “Smith” the name used by all the aliens in that Buckaroo Banzai movie, which came out right around 1984—so maybe the Martians got scared their cover had been blown! 
     
    No, they were all named John (even the women) including such notables as John BigBooty, John Yaya, and John Smallberries. But as I recall, no John Smith.  
     
    I think there has to be an error.

  36. People lie and kid themselves about their ethnicity. For a good example see the English actor John Hurt, who has long imagined he is in some way Irish, but has been disabused of his fond delusion by taking part in a TV program that investigated his roots. The strange difference in the median age of people claiming Irish and English ancestry is no doubt caused by the greater tendency of younger people to be swayed by fashion. To be Celtic is ultra-trendy. To be English is emphatically not. We see this even here in England, where the working classes call their children Liam and Connor and Siobhan in an attempt to fit in with the mood of the times. But I’m sure everyone knows that we should never trust self-reported ancestry.

  37. Graham, 
     
    Reminds me of the fact that a few months before the very popular, former Irish President Mary Robinson, visit Australia a few years ago, 27% of the people claimed to be of Irish descent. After a great reception there, where she highlighted Ireland’s recent achievements, another poll was taken, and lo and behold 40% of Australians now claimed to be of Irish descent.

  38. As regards the rise in popularity of all things Celtic – well I predicted this a few years ago… 
     
    As Ireland rises to be the wealthiest – purchasing power parity per capita – country in the world, people everywhere have become fascinated with the country, and what makes it tick. 
     
    Germans are playing Celtic inspired music – just check out the Folk-Metal group Tanzwut, whose lineup features 2 to 4 bagpipers! 
     
    New Zealanders compare themselves constantly to Ireland, as although they have similar populations, both in size and composition, Ireland is almost twice as wealthy…

  39. When I first visited the UK in the early ’70s, Irish jokes were as widespread as Polish jokes were in the USA, and just as down-putting.  
     
    Also, I was able once to attend a fete de quartier in Geneva about twenty years ago which had a band from Ireland. The usual dour Genevois [?] were totally riverdancing all the old Irish jigs & reels and then I remembered that Geneva is actually a Celtic name for head of a river, as the Rhone begins in Geneva by flowing southward out of Lac Leman. I wonder how many inhabitants of the city are descended from the original Celtic population?

  40. As Ireland rises to be the wealthiest – purchasing power parity per capita – country in the world, people everywhere have become fascinated with the country, and what makes it tick. 
     
    Yeah, EU subventions can be pretty fascinating ;) (I keed, I keed!)  
     
    More seriously, fascination with Ireland (and with all things Celtic in general) has been a dominant feature of continental Europe for a couple centuries now. Ever heard about Ossian?

  41. More seriously, fascination with Ireland (and with all things Celtic in general) has been a dominant feature of continental Europe for a couple centuries now. 
     
    That’s true: it’s a romantic trend that has some venerable age by now.

  42. I seriously doubt that people are Germanicizing their last names. Being German is not considered exotic by white people. It is almost like being English but with funny spellings and connotations of lederhosen. 
     
    We are far more likely to change our names to something pseudo-Celtic, even if it was already a Scottish or Irish name but we thought it sounded too English. Celts are a lot more trendy, and then we can get those Celtic-style tattoos and hang out in pubs listening to Irish bands. Much more exotic than bratwurst and oom-pah bands.  
     
    I would go with the theory that people named Smith tend to be the sort of people who marry late and have few (if any) children, and who are delighted to take their spouse’s presumably more exotic surname.

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