What’s in a Name? The Origin and Meaning of Spanish Surnames
Have you ever wondered why Spanish names are so long? As you may have noticed, the names of people in Spanish-speaking countries consist of a first name and two surnames. Traditionally, you will see the first surname of the father followed by the first of the mother. Presently, laws have changed on gender equality and now allow any order, but we normally see the original order. People always use their full name in legal settings. In informal contexts, however, they use their first name and first surname to introduce themselves.
The first name can be simple, such as José (Joseph), or composite such as José Miguel (Joseph Michael). Nevertheless, in the given name, Miguel is not a middle name but is part of the name José Miguel. Contrary to English-speaking countries, middle names are not mandatory elements of a person’s name, although exceptions exist, as we will explore later on.
Transmission of Spanish Surnames
The two last names come from what is called a “generational transmission” from both parents. Currently, the two first surnames of each parent are combined. As stated above, the father’s surname is often first while the mother’s surname comes after. Interestingly, the paternal, or father’s, name will eventually eliminate the maternal name of the family line. An example of this is with two parents, Lucía López García and Jorge Rosales Castillo. Their child will most likely use the traditional order and hold a name such as Paola Rosales López. She will marry and her name will change to Paola Rosales Mendoza or Paola Rosales de Mendoza. As you can see, the maternal name has been dropped and replaced by the husband’s name. Nonetheless, the transfer of the father’s surname was not always the norm. Spanish-speaking societies once practiced the transmission of one Spanish surname, choosing between the mother or father.
The Four Categories of Surnames
When looking at Spanish surnames, a clear pattern emerges. History tells us that by the twelfth century, as populations grew, people needed a way to distinguish one name or family from another. They began to follow specific traditions that helped them understand which surname to use. Namely, four types of surnames appeared. They became the origin of most Spanish surnames we see today.
Patronymic and Matronymic Surnames
Patronymic means the surname comes from the father’s first name, while matronymic means it’s from the mother’s name. Now, if you met two men name Juan, you might mix them up. However, by distinguishing who their fathers are, their names suddenly become distinct. The paternal surname was a combination of the man’s father’s name and a suffix meaning “son of”: -ez, -az, -is, -oz (or -es), -as, -os. In other words, someone with the name Juan Fernandez means Juan “son of Fernando”. If he had a son, his name would have been Diego Juanez, Diego “son of Juan.” Given this fact, surnames weren’t at all consistent. Eventually, a specific surname stuck with the family and was passed to future generations. Matronymic surnames are less common, often a result of illegitimate children or a mother of higher noble ranking.
Geographic surnames tell us where the first person with a surname lived. This includes very specific surnames, such as de Soto (from Soto), from families that typically owned land. More general surnames like Iglesias (lived near a church) acted much like nicknames. Similarly, they may refer to what type of land the person lived on. For example, del Valle (from the valley) or de la Vega (from the meadow) depict certain features of the original homeland.
Occupational surnames refer to a person’s job or trade. Two types of occupational surnames are standard and titular. Standard occupational surnames represent a common trade, such as Zapatero (shoemaker) and Barros (an artisan or builder who used clay). Nobility often gave these surnames to the commoners under their rule. Conversely, the nobility used titular occupational surnames that denoted their position. For example, Hidalgo means “nobleman,” and Marques means “marquis.”
Descriptive surnames are less common and much more personal. They refer to a quality, characteristic, or physical trait of a person. It’s worth noting that this type of surname was frequently given to commoners as a form of insult. For this reason, the bulk of these surnames have not survived over time. Those that remain show a fairly neutral trait or a positive attribute. Examples include Bravo (brave), Cano (gray), Cortes (courteous), Delgado (thin), and Orejón (big ear).
Spanish Surnames in Foreign Countries
Entering into a foreign naming system often requires vigilance and necessary changes. One example is when a Spanish person lives under an English naming system. In order to avoid confusion, they may hyphenate their last name, turning Marcela Pérez Rubio into Marcela Pérez-Rubio. In view of the one-surname system used by English-speakers, there may be legal confusion and her name could become Marcela P. Rubio on a government document. This poses a big problem for her identity since, in her home country, her name would be abbreviated as Marcela Pérez R.
Foreign Surnames in Spanish-Speaking Countries
In Spanish-speaking countries, foreign immigrants keep using their cultural naming customs. However, if they choose to obtain citizenship, they must assume a name in the Spanish manner. If the person comes from a culture with a unique family name, they repeat it twice. As a result, an English name “William Stewart Mirren” turns into “William Stewart Mirrén Mirrén.” The law allows a person to adopt the mother’s maiden name if they choose to. Lastly, the Spanish custom connects the first and middle name making it the two first names for legal documents.
Top 50 Most Common Spanish Surnames
The chart below shows the top 50 most common Spanish surnames in Spain. As well, you will see the estimated population of how many people have this particular last name. Take a look at the chart and see how many names you recognize. Do you see which of the suffixes is most common among these names?
Prepositions “de” and “y”
There are times that Spanish surnames include a preposition between the paternal and maternal surnames. Some people choose to use “de” and/or “y” for three main reasons. Firstly, it shows nobility, such as the name of Gabriel de la Cueva y Girón, who was a sixteenth-century nobleman and military leader. Secondly, it denotes location, as is the case for the name Lope Félix de Vega y Carpio (de Vega means “of the meadow”), a famous playwright of undistinguished origin. Lastly, it helps to distinguish between the first name and a surname that could be mistaken for a first name like Antonio Miguel y Morales. In this case, we understand that Miguel is not his second name, but instead the first of his surnames.
Obviously, Spanish surnames give us the chance to learn about a person’s family history. Not only is it fascinating to take a closer look at the meaning of a person’s surname, but it is also educational. By learning how these surnames were created, how they’re used in present day, and how to understand them, we can better comprehend their importance. Furthermore, it allows us to appreciate the complexity of the naming system in Spanish culture.
Want more free Spanish lessons and fun content? You’ll love these:
- B2 Reading Practice: Intermediate Spanish Reading Comprehension
- List of Spanish Words A-Z: Beginner Spanish for Kids (& FREE FLASHCARDS!)
- A Massive List of Adjectives in Spanish for Beginners
- A Complete Guide to Spanish Computer Vocabulary
- Positive Adjectives in Spanish for Any Person or Occasion
- It’s Time to Do Chores in Spanish! What’s Yours?
- 50 Useful Transition Words in Spanish for Everyday Speech and Writing
- Master the 18 Spanish Tenses (and Take Our Cheat Sheet With You)
- Spanish Food and Cooking Words for Your Preschooler - January 10, 2021
- Rooms in Spanish: Extensive House and Furniture Vocabulary - January 4, 2021
- Celebrate Thanksgiving in Spanish! Vocabulary for Kids - November 19, 2020