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4 types of Spanish surnames: Which one is yours?

Surname Meanings
23 October 2017
by Leslie Lang

Ever wonder about Spanish surnames (“apellido” in Spanish) and how they came to be? Spanish surnames started being used in medieval times, when populations were growing and it became necessary to distinguish between individuals with the same given name.

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The 10 most common Spanish surnames today cover about 20 percent of the population in Spain. Some originated from Germanic first names that were introduced in the country by the Visigoths during the 5th to 7th centuries, while others have Latin roots.

The 10 most common first surnames in Spain in 2013, according to the Instituto Nacional de Estadistica, are:

  1. García—1,459,677 (3.51%), Pre-Roman, Basque
  2. Fernández—914,169 (2.2%), Germanic
  3. González—912,511 (2.19%), from Germanic
  4. Rodríguez—906,746 (2.18%), Germanic
  5. López—858,736 (2.07%), Latin
  6. Martínez—822,848 (1.98%), Latin
  7. Sánchez—805,889 (1.94%), Latin
  8. Pérez—767,962 (1.85%), Latin
  9. Martín—489,357 (1.18%), Latin
  10. Gómez—482,781 (1.16%), Germanic

People in countries with Hispanic surnames generally have two surnames today, a system that dates back to the upper classes in Castile in the 16th century.

For the most part, people now take the first of their father’s two surnames and the first of the mother’s two surnames as their own last name. Women sometimes add their husband’s surname to the end of theirs or in place of their mother’s surname, sometimes with a “de” between the two names. Therefore, a husband and wife generally have different sets of double surnames, as do their children.

In the past, however, Hispanic naming patterns were not as consistent. Sometimes, sons took the surname of their father, while daughters took that of their mother. The Castilian double surname naming system of the 16th century didn’t become common throughout Spain until the 1800s.

When researching your pre-19th-century Spanish ancestors, therefore, remember that naming patterns then differed from naming patterns today.

Historically, Spanish surnames can typically be traced back to one of four types:

1. Patronymic & Matronymic.

This type of surname started out as a way of distinguishing between two men with the same name by using a father’s first name (patronymic) or a mother’s given name (matronymic). Sometimes the parent’s name was unchanged (as in Alonso, Vicente, and Garcia), but frequently it was used with an added suffix that meant “son of.” These include -ez, -az, -is, -oz at the end of a Castilian or Spanish surname and -es, -as, -is, or -os with Portuguese names. Patronymic or matronymic names are some of the most common Hispanic surnames; some examples include Fernandez, “son of Fernando,” or Gonzales, “son of Gonzalo.”

These were not, at first, surnames that were passed down. In one generation, an individual might be Martin Perez (Martin, son of Pedro). His son would be Juan Martinez (Juan, son of Martin). Eventually, these patronymic names became fixed surnames that passed down in the family through the generations.

Some other names of this sort include:

  • Dominguez—son of Domingo
  • Hernandez—son of Hernando
  • Lopez—son of Lope
  • Ramirez—son of Ramiro
  • Ruiz—son of Ruy or Roy
  • Suarez—son of Suero
  • Velazquez—son of Velasco
  • Velez—son of Vela

2. Geographic

This type of Hispanic last name tells you something about where the first person to take the name came from, or where their homestead was. Someone named Aguilar may have originally lived near an eagle’s nest; the name refers to a “haunt for eagles.” Other common geographic surnames of this type include Medina and Oyarzun (both place names), Navarro (“from Navarre”), Serrano (meaning “highlander”), and still other geographic surnames refer to features of the landscape where a family lived, such as Vega (“meadow”), Mendoza (“cold mountain”), Morales (“blackberry groves”), Torres (“towers”), and Iglesias (“churches”). Some include the suffix “de” to indicate “of” or “from” a place, such as Del Olmo (“from the elm tree”) and Davila (from “d’Avila,” meaning “from the town of Avila”).

3. Occupational

Sometimes a surname that denoted a person’s job or trade was tacked on to a person’s given name. Felipe Vicario, for instance, was Felipe the vicar. Some other common occupational surnames:

  • Alcaldo—mayor
  • Barbero—barber
  • Cabrero—goatherder
  • Cantor—singer
  • Cavallero—horseman, knight
  • Corredor—runner
  • Herrera/Herrero—ironworker, smith
  • Hidalgo—nobelman
  • Marin—from the Latin “Marinus,” meaning sailor
  • Marques—marquis
  • Molinero—miller
  • Romero—pilgrim
  • Torrero—bullkeeper, fighter
  • Zapatero—shoemaker

4. Descriptive

This type of surname was based on a quality or physical feature of the person.

  • Bravo—brave
  • Cano—grey
  • Cola—tall
  • Cortes—courteous
  • Delgado—thin
  • Garza (heron)—long legged
  • Grand—large
  • Moreno—brown haired, tan
  • Orejon—big ear
  • Rubio—blonde

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