The Meanings and Origins of Spanish Surnames

Have you ever wondered about your Spanish last name and how it came to be? Spanish surnames (apellidos) first came into use around the 12th century when populations began to expand to the point where it became necessary to distinguish between individuals who had the same first name. Modern Spanish surnames generally fall into one of four categories.

Patronymic & Matronymic Surnames

Based on a parent’s first name, this category of surnames includes some of the most common Hispanic last names and originated as a way to distinguish between two men of the same first name by using the name of their father (patronymic) or mother (matronymic).

Grammatically, Spanish patronymic surnames were sometimes an unchanged form of the father’s given name, distinguished by a difference in pronunciation. However, Spanish patronymic surnames were most often formed by adding suffixes meaning “son of” such as es, as, is, or os (common to Portuguese surnames) or ez, az, is, or oz(common to Castilian or Spanish surnames) to the end of the father’s name.

Examples:

  • Leon Alvarez—Leon, son of Alvaro
  • Eduardo Fernández—Eduardo, son of Fernándo
  • Pedro Velazquez—Pedro, son of Velasco

Geographical Surnames

Geographical surnames, another common type of Hispanic last name, are often derived from the location of the homestead from which the first bearer and his family came from or resided in. Medina and Ortega are common geographical Hispanic surnames and there are numerous towns in the Spanish speaking world bearing these names. Some Spanish geographic surnames refer to landscape features, such as Vega, meaning “meadow,” and Mendoza, meaning “cold mountain,” a combination of mendi(mountain) and (h)otz (cold) + a.

Some Spanish geographic surnames also feature the suffix de, meaning “from” or “of.”

Examples:

  • Ricardo de Lugo—Ricardo, from the town of Lugo
  • Lucas Iglesias—Lucas, who lived near a church (iglesia)
  • Sebastián Desoto—Sebastián, of ‘the grove’ (soto)

Occupational Surnames

Occupational Hispanic last names were initially derived from a person’s job or trade.

Examples:

  • Roderick Guerrero—Roderick, the warrior or soldier
  • Lucas Vicario—Lucas, the vicar
  • Carlos Zapatero—Carlos, the shoemaker

Descriptive Surnames

Based on a unique quality or physical feature of the individual, descriptive surnames often developed in Spanish speaking countries from nicknames or pet names, often were based on an individual’s physical characteristics or personality.

Examples:

  • Juan Delgado—John the thin
  • Aarón Cortes—Aarón, the courteous
  • Marco Rubio—Marco, the blonde

Why Do Most Hispanic People Use Two Last Names?

Hispanic surnames can be especially important to genealogists because children are commonly given two surnames, one from each parent. The middle name (first surname) traditionally comes from the father’s name (apellido paterno), while the last name (second surname) is the mother’s maiden name (apellido materno). Sometimes, these two surnames may be found separated by y (meaning “and”), although this is no longer as common as it once was.

Due to recent changes in Spanish law, you may also find the two surnames reversed, with the mother’s surname appearing first and the father’s surname second. The pattern of mother’s surname followed by father’s surname is also common usage for Portuguese surnames.

In the United States, where the use of two surnames is less common, some families give children the paternal surname only or sometimes hyphenate the two names. These naming patterns are only the most common and variations do exist. In the past, Hispanic naming patterns were less consistent. Sometimes, sons took the surname of their father, while daughters took that of their mother. The use of double surnames didn’t become common throughout Spain until the 1800s.

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