My name is...Tonto Kowalski.
January 19, 2009 9:43 AM   Subscribe

What are some good ethnic-neutral last names?

When writing fiction, I'd like to be able to name my main character with a name that doesn't betray their ethnicity. However, it'd be strange to name all of my characters with the last name of "Lee", so what are some other last names that could work? Is there a word for "ethnic-neutral" that I could use to search for more?
posted by jsmith77 to Writing & Language (45 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I don't think such things exist. Lee is hardly ethnic-neutral. I can think of plenty ethnicities where Lee wouldn't be a plausible surname.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 9:50 AM on January 19, 2009

Best answer: Here are some ideas:




They all sound vaguely...something, but is this the kind of thing you're looking for?
posted by amtho at 9:52 AM on January 19, 2009

Ethnicity, or country they grew up in? Some people take on more Western-sounding last names.

That said, Tonto Kowalski sounds like the title for a totally bitchin' exploitation movie.
posted by dunkadunc at 9:54 AM on January 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

They're not neutral, they're just possibly confusing. There's only two likely origins of "Lee", after all, but it works since they're very different origins.

In that vein: Ray, Fallon, Maron, Hain, Poe.
posted by rokusan at 9:58 AM on January 19, 2009

I agree with penguin - it will be difficult to find something that doesn't give any indication of ethnicity whatsoever, unless you're writing science fiction and can name your character Gy99'zz or something similar outlandish. Why not rethink this - why does your character need a last name at all? How does including a character's last name help to tell a story?
posted by oulipian at 9:59 AM on January 19, 2009

Judging by your example, you're looking for names that have an ambiguous cultural origin. I don't think you're going to find any absolutely "ethnic-neutral" names.
posted by zamboni at 10:01 AM on January 19, 2009

If "possibly confusing" is good enough, D'Silva might work. It's originally Portuguese, but I've known a number of people from India and Pakistan with that name (likely due to some colonial history). On the other hand, not many people know that and reading the name would likely suggest Portuguese.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 10:06 AM on January 19, 2009

By giving a European last name to a character of apparently African origins, you can obscure the character's actual cultural heritage. I'm at a loss for ways to do this realistically, otherwise.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:07 AM on January 19, 2009

Response by poster: Well, perhaps not ethnic-neutral in that it could represent any ethnicity, but ethnic-neutral in that you either don't get an immediate picture of the person's ethnicity in your mind--and if you do, others easily picture someone else.

I'm writing screenplays, and I just don't want to define a character's race if it's not relevant to the story.

Thanks for the names so sounds like the shorter, the more abstract.

(And Tonto Kowalski is the punchline for a joke about name stereotypes ;))
posted by jsmith77 at 10:08 AM on January 19, 2009

posted by box at 10:09 AM on January 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

oulipan: you can take the mid-period Martin Amis route with surnames that are outlandish without being sci-fi: John Self, Nicola Six, etc. Or you can be obfuscatory: Mike Aitch, etc. But it's hard to write novels without calling people by names.
posted by holgate at 10:12 AM on January 19, 2009

posted by abirae at 10:12 AM on January 19, 2009

I believe this is highly ethnocentric. When I hear Lee, I immediately think South East Asia. The name Madoff, just to pick something that comes to mind, wouldn't make me think of any particular ethnic origin. However, I imagine the exact opposite is true for somebody from South East Asia. It really depends on your audience and their cultural/ethnic background.
posted by Brennus at 10:13 AM on January 19, 2009

Best answer: I always liked the Korean last name 'Park.'
posted by tumbleweedjack at 10:19 AM on January 19, 2009

This might be a neat little toy for when you're deciding.
posted by phunniemee at 10:21 AM on January 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

How about using variations on place names? Many immigrants (to America) were given names like Ellis, Bawlmer, etc.

Or just use initials in instances were you feel the need to include a last name, e.g. Lilly M.
posted by charmcityblues at 10:21 AM on January 19, 2009

Along the lines of what Brennus is saying, you might be best off just choosing a common last name from the region your story is set in. Lots of immigrants change their last names, so the character could plausibly be of any ethnicity. If you pick a strange-sounding name, people are going to try to guess where it comes from. If you pick an ordinary name, people won't think twice about it.

If, however, you want to not only have a character with no ethnicity, but a setting without any distinguishable region, you're in for a tough job. Getting rid of any cultural signifiers is going to be nigh on impossible.
posted by echo target at 10:28 AM on January 19, 2009

Kolar has always done me fine.
posted by tkolar at 10:29 AM on January 19, 2009

I read a lot of screenplays, and most don't include full names.

RICK, a swarthy shirtless pool-boy
THE GARDENER, a quiet immigrant
MISTER BLACK, a mysterious businessman
TALL JOHN, a beatnik

Are you sure you need them?
posted by rokusan at 10:29 AM on January 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Honestly, it sounds more like your question is "How do I write my screenplays to be as color-blind as possible?" Naming alone won't accomplish that, and I'm not even sure it's entirely desirable as a goal.

You might ask folks like John August about that, as they're in a better position to know (unless we've got any fairly accomplished Hollywood screenwriters in here). Craig Mazin's written about race in screenplays here, mostly as a rebuttal to another screenwriter's thoughts on race. Gregory Allan Howard has an article on "Dealing with Race Scripturally" in the January '01 Script Magazine, which you can probably snag at your local library if you don't want to order it without knowing what's in the article.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 10:34 AM on January 19, 2009

Yeah I'd say that generally speaking (and only if you're talking about the US, and to a lesser extent other English-speaking countries) giving your character an English last name: Hill, Smith (or Welsh: Williams, Jones) you can obscure ethnicity as this person could be Anglo-Saxon, Black or from any part of Europe or of European Jewish ancestry with an anglicized last name. The problem with this is that most people would immediately assume that this person was Anglo-Saxon, because it's an English last name...
posted by ob at 10:35 AM on January 19, 2009

O'Young is a (pretty effective!) Westernization of a two-word Chinese last name.
posted by svolix at 10:36 AM on January 19, 2009

Best answer: Last names that are animals (i.e. "Lyons") and colors (i.e. "Black") are always good.
posted by banannafish at 10:45 AM on January 19, 2009

echo target has it, I think: you might be best off just choosing a common last name from the region your story is set in. Pair a common last name with a neutral/common first name for that region and people will not think too about the person's ethnicity.

In the US, for example, Jones is a very common last name, so common that most people don't even think about it when they hear it, and, though it is Welsh, that is not something that immediately comes to mind when one hears it. Pair Jones with a Welsh first name like Dafydd and people will think it exotic. Make that David Jones instead and the name will "read" as fairly neutral to the average person in a US setting.
posted by gudrun at 10:53 AM on January 19, 2009

Sigh .... should know better than posting when having a migraine - "will not think too about" above should read "will not think too much about".
posted by gudrun at 11:30 AM on January 19, 2009

Use colours for all the names (Paul Auster does this).
posted by dhruva at 12:45 PM on January 19, 2009

Best answer: You could always invent a new name.

When Cormac McCarthy sat down to write No Country for Old Men, he wanted to create a villain with an ambiguous background. So he described him as having dark hair and skin, eyes "blue as lapis... like wet stones", and a "faintly exotic" demeanor. He completed the picture by giving him an equally ambiguous name: Anton Chigurh. When asked later on the set of the movie where he got the name, he confessed to simply making it up.

It may sound difficult to do the same, but just play around with sounds that mimic what you want the character to be like. Surname onomatopoeia! One good strategy, I think, is to look at words that are difficult to guess the definition of. Most words have certain roots or suffixes that help you guess at the meaning or origin, either because you know the etymology or because the similarities to other words ring a bell. Hard words have no easy "tells", they're just a set of letters that lack context and defy classification. Scroop. Nelipot. Parnel. Obscure words, obsolete words, stuff like that.

Names are similar. Try to find a short, meaningless string of letters that suggest some quality but aren't tied to any region or heritage or linguistic tradition.
posted by Rhaomi at 1:06 PM on January 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

Last names are hard because last names are where a lot of cultures show themselves because they relate to familial relations which are, themselves, ethnic in nature. There are some names that cross over a few areas, but for any which does not have an ethnicity, I don't think there'd be a way to do that . . . aside from making something up completely that sounds like it could be from anywhere.
posted by Gular at 1:46 PM on January 19, 2009

posted by JohnnyGunn at 1:59 PM on January 19, 2009

Best answer: You're going to have to invent some. I went and hacked up a character-based Markov generator based on this word-based one, inspired by this post on PerlMonks.

Then I went and Googled and found this Markov-based name generator already online, and right off the bat it proposed such delightful names as:
Roska Poina
Araibodmannon Bognam
Rohmer Roenez
Hopkington Goulo
Timpeau Gurum
Arake Bessondon
Soecke Chambeete
It also output a great many names that I could assign an ethnicity to with no trouble whatsoever, and even among these you can sometimes sense one wafting up out of the randomness. So you've still got work to do to become ethnicity-free.

(And by the way, do your characters eat? Do you ever say what they eat? Do they wear clothes? Do you ever mention those (and/or mention that they don't wear them)? Ethnicity continues to lurk behind every detail.)

/me returns to prepping a list of names for his own Markov generator, just to see.
posted by eritain at 2:29 PM on January 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

maybe because I grew up near chinatown, Lee is a chinese / asian name to me... what other ethnicity is it usually associated with?

I think the only reason to include last names in screenplays is if you want to provide some background on the characters, however subtly. Or perhaps if you want to provide nickname options or something...

But if you want to keep the characters ambiguous, somewhat hazy, then don't pin down their family names - the family trees, cultural origins, that you can encode into last names to some extent, when you want to.
posted by mdn at 2:37 PM on January 19, 2009


Almost inevitably a replacement for some hard to pronounce ethnic-sounding name.
posted by JaredSeth at 2:51 PM on January 19, 2009

maybe because I grew up near chinatown, Lee is a chinese / asian name to me... what other ethnicity is it usually associated with?

Southern U.S. As in General Robert E.
posted by tkolar at 3:13 PM on January 19, 2009


Could be East Indian, could be european.
posted by Araucaria at 3:15 PM on January 19, 2009

Lee is also an English-language surname (Christopher Lee, Spike Lee, Peggy Lee...)

Surely most first names also give an indication of ethnicity?
posted by Helga-woo at 3:41 PM on January 19, 2009

Best answer: You can Wikipedia "[nationality] + names" and get lists of surnames native to different countries. i find the shorter names 1-2 syllables tend to sound more universal.

Ruben could be black, Hispanic, or Jewish.
Lee, Kim, and Park are all either Korean or Anglo.
Long, Lee, Tan, and Song could be Chinese or Anglo.
Washington could be white or black.
Kiran is an Indian first name that sounds like the Irish name Kieran.
Gore, Wale, Ray, Rey, Toy, Dey, and Pal are all Indian surnames that sound Anglo or Asian.
Kahn is an old-fashioned Japanese male name, which could also be a Jewish surname or a South Asian first or last name.
Low could be Chinese or Jewish.

A few more names work out loud as homonyms, although the spelling would give them away (Sing/Singh could be Chinese or Sikh, Young/Yung, Sha/Shaw, could be Anglo or Chinese)
posted by pseudostrabismus at 3:45 PM on January 19, 2009

maybe because I grew up near chinatown, Lee is a chinese / asian name to me... what other ethnicity is it usually associated with?

Southern U.S. As in General Robert E.

Also Harper Lee. David Letterman's bassist, Will Lee. Former Red Sox pitcher Bill Lee. And, although it's a pseudonym, no one would mistake Stan Lee for Asian. I can definitely see why the OP picked it as an example of quasi-ethnic-neutrality. I think "Park" would be another one.

Another option is picking "dictionary" names, esp if it's a futuristic sci-fi story. Actually, sci-fi could be a good source of what you're looking for. Or maybe names that are usually thought of as first names.

And for an actor known for his foreign-ness, Arnold has had a lot of roles with names that are rather generic... Brewer, Gibson, Tasker, Dutch...
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 4:02 PM on January 19, 2009

Most people I know with the surname "White" are not. In my family, it was shortened from "Witofsky" but it certainly carries different origin stories at different places and times throughout history.
posted by judith at 4:22 PM on January 19, 2009

I've always thought Ree is an uncommon yet simple last name that's fairly obscure in origin (it's Dutch).

Kyan (pronounced "can") is a Japanese surname (喜屋武)most commonly seen in Okinawa. But it could be used in an ambiguous way, I think. Also, simple Japanese surnames like Kudo, Goto, Todo, Tojo, Sato, Oda, Yada, Kida, Kiba, Tagi, Nura, Nezu... I could go on, but these could work too, perhaps.
posted by misozaki at 4:47 PM on January 19, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks folks, lots of great ideas, links and names in here!

fairytale of los angeles, I realized after clicking your link that I had that very issue of Script magazine. I guess that article stuck with me all those years. Yes, a color-blind character is what I'm going for. I'm asian, so I'd have a little bit of guilt putting out a script that would prevent, say, an asian actor from being considered for the part because of the name I choose. At the same time, I'm not writing an ethnic story right now, and I'm not trying to force affirmative action as a writer.

And to answer why I even need a last name, this one particular script I'm working on deals with detectives--not a group that goes around greeting each other on a first-name basis regularly.
posted by jsmith77 at 5:00 PM on January 19, 2009

Having gotten most of these names cleaned up to the point where I could use them (3-character Markov chain), and having built a little list comparator to throw out the ones that were already in the input, I've now got five hundred or so candidates, many of which still seem either ethnic or improbable. Plugging some of the others into phunniemee's name profiler reveals that several of them are surnames after all. Abelly: Canadian. Adre: Argentinian. Aggarwalchyk: Not matched, but seriously! Agrada/Agrado: Not found, hurray! Alva: Indian. Aigne: French. Alexanderson: Not even gonna bother checking that one. And that's just a sampling from the first screenful. MeMail if you want the list.
posted by eritain at 7:33 PM on January 19, 2009

... and the second screenful includes Bela Cruz. For real. I'm going down the list, Googling likely candidates, and it is totally astonishing how many of these randomly-generated namelike words really have someone with that name somewhere on the Internet. (Surprisingly, there are no hits for 'Aguilescu' yet. But it's hardly the ethnic-neutral you were hoping for.)
posted by eritain at 7:50 PM on January 19, 2009

Another Korean surname that works well: Moon.
posted by smorange at 8:24 PM on January 19, 2009

A friend of mine tells a story of when his grandfather immigrated to the US from Sweden; his name was Hansen. He didn't want his name to reveal his ethnicity and resolved to ask the first American he saw what his name was, and to take that name as his own. And that is how my friend's family name came to be Niggemyer.
posted by Restless Day at 10:01 AM on January 20, 2009

Hard words have no easy "tells", they're just a set of letters that lack context and defy classification. Scroop. Nelipot. Parnel. Obscure words, obsolete words, stuff like that.

Google before choosing a name. I can tell you what people will think about Parnel.
posted by ersatz at 11:42 AM on January 20, 2009

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