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Surnames, where do they come from?

Ever wonder what your surname means? Or where it comes from? Or which generation of your ancestors chose it? Or how?

I ran a quick search, and it seems that like most other things, the origin of family names varies with culture and geography. Their use started when people started finding it difficult to identify each other with their first names alone. Population growth you might call it. Most surnames were obviously chosen long long ago, close to the middle ages, but different societies still use them differently.

The Spanish for instance. Unlike most English societies, in Spain, every person has two family names, the first is paternal and the second, maternal. My Spanish professor, who is from Valencia in Spain, writes her name as Maria Jose Romero, or Marijo Romero for short. Upon marriage, Spanish people retain their own two family names, including the women. For women, the name however, may be linked to her husband’s surname using ‘de’. So if my Spanish prof were to marry, say Enrique Iglesias, she could be called Maria Jose de Iglesias – Maria Jose of Iglesias, to put it cheesily.

I also know that names work in a rather interesting way in Bali, this time, the first names. Balinese surnames originate from and reflect the heritage of the people or the clans which their ancestors belonged to. We worked on a advertising project for a Balinese guy called Wayan. From that we found out that every first child in a native Balinese family is called Wayan! Not just that, in a Balinese family, every fifth child’s first name is also Wayan. So considering the population of Bali to be over 3 million, you can just about imagine the number of Wayans in Bali. Whew!

In India, and I just found out, for north-Indian families, the surnames usually originated from occupations (Eg, Patel meant village headman), clan names or names of places. My own surname, Nath, has its origins in a Sanskrit word “natha” meaning lord. Apparently, it was used mostly as a compounded first name, from where it evolved into a surname. I can’t seem to trace its exact ancestry.

According to my friend from South India, surnames there generally don’t trace back to clans or occupations. They are mostly based on the ownership of people back in the day. Her surname, Vazhappily (pronounced somewhat like Varapily), partly means “Banana tree”, and a long-handed-down joke in her family traces this surname’s origin to the fact that their ancestors owned a sprawling estate of banana trees in Kerala. In fact, most Mallus (Malayam, the local language of Kerala and a local reference for the people) have surnames based on the location of their ancestral homes (Puram, a common part of Mallu surnames, for instance, means ‘On top’). People would often refer to others using the location or the kind of their house (on top of a hill / in a field, etc) and such reference gradually turned into identities. Anyway, because of the complexity in the pronunciation of their surnames, most south Indians prefer to use abbreviations / initials.

Sikh surnames are mostly guided by Sikhism, according to a scripture of which, all Sikh men must use ‘Singh’ in their name and all Sikh women must use ‘Kaur’. Singh is Punjabi (the local language of Punjab) for Lion while Kaur means Princess.

More interestingly, in Rwanda, Africa (of the Hotel Rwanda fame), surnames usually refer to God. I found some such ones on Wiki. The most commonly used surnames here are Hakizimana, meaning God cures, Nshimirimana, I thank God and Havyarimana/Habyarimana, God gives birth.

In Ethiopia, as Wiki also says, the surname given to a child is the father’s first name.

And in Tibet, a child is named by a Buddhist Lama. There are no family names, just two randomly chosen names. People in the same family usually have different second names! It is also common for them to change their first / second names midlife, if the name is believed to be an obstacle. How much choice!

Wow, I never thought there could be so much history and variation for choosing a name. Then again, a family name lives with you for a long long time, handed down over many many generations.

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Over 3 years ago, I gave up my home, sold most of my stuff, stored some in the boot of a friend's car, and started calling the road home. Thanks for coming along virtually on my adventures! I'm always eager to hear your thoughts; leave me a comment and let me know how your travel dreams are shaping up and what you'd like to hear about more on my blog. Connect with me on Instagram/Twitter @shivya.

6 Comments

  1. Pingback: english heritage

  2. rosemary and karina says

    find out what year!! cuz we’re doin a english asiment and we need the year!!!!!!!! and so will other people!!

    Like

  3. loved this one..i’ve always wanted to know where and people got their surnames from 🙂

    Like

  4. Does anyone know where the surname Loput orginates from? That is my grandmother’s surname. She was allegedly born in Prague…but I cant find a Czech surname Loput.

    email me ondohenydrive@aol.com

    Like

  5. Prajakta says

    very interesting….actually, surnames and their history is a very good way of tracking your ancestry. Within the kayashta community in India, while most people took on their title in the aristocracy as their surnames, it changed as different clans moved to diff villages. And it is strange but most surnames amongst this community can be traced to 5 sages who are considered to be the original authors of the Vedas. So I guess a family tree would be a great way to teach Indian history to kids 😛

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