Maybe you have come across some Spaniard with a really impressive, long family name? Or somebody who for some bizarre reason is called Fernández Fernández? And you might be wondering why Spanish people have such long names?
Well, Spanish women when they get married don’t change their names, which is also the common practise in Belgium and Italy. However, in Belgium and Italy the children only take the surname of the father – so I keep wondering, how can you tell that the child and the mother belong together? Here the Spanish (and actually the Danish as well) are much more clever: children have both their father’s and their mother’s family names. So, in some cases you might end up with the same name twice, such as Fernández Fernández! Nevertheless, in some situations they will also mention their grandmothers’ family names, so they will have FOUR family names!
So, how does it work? Well, if a Spanish couple, let’s say José María García Fernández and María Jesús Gómez Borrega (I will explain the first names below) have a son – his family names will be García Gómez because only the grandfathers’ names are kept, not the grandmothers’. The father’s (grandfather’s) name always come first (except in Portugal where it is vice-versa). In everyday life their son might chose to just use García as a family name.
How come some people are called José María or María Jesús? Well, the reason I guess is religion, but it’s easy to remember that the first name indicates the gender of the person – so José María is a man, and María Jesús is a woman.
Most Spanish people have two names, and very often both names are used in everyday life – such as the example above with María Jesús. Others never use their second name except for administrative purposes. Most women are called María – just like in Sweden where Maria is the most common female name, however most Swedish women have it as a second name. And it seems to be the same practise in Spain, as I have never met a Spanish woman who was called just María.
What I do find strange is the tradition of names such as Pilar (pillar which is from the Virgin of the Pillar in Zaragoza, the Virgin Mary appeared on a pillar), Rosario (rosary) and Dolores (pain) – they are masculine words but feminine names. At least Concepción is a feminine word and a feminine name, not that I can understand why you would choose to name your daughter Inmaculada Concepción (Immaculate Conception)?!
In many families in Spain and Italy, the tradition is that the oldest son gets the name of the father, from generation to generation. So, probably little baby García Gómez from above, is called José, just like his father and his paternal grandfather… and to distinguish between them, diminutives may be used – the grandfather might be called Pepe*, the father Pepete and the grandchild Joserra.
Phew, I don’t know if this has clarified the Spanish name mysteries – I am not an expert and please correct me if I am wrong! I just have one Spanish family as a reference and they have none of the above mentioned names (I just made them up)!
*) O and I have discussed if Pepe comes from the Italian Guiseppe – because it doesn’t really make sense that the diminutive of José becomes Pepe… Somebody else has an idea?
You can read more about Spanish names here. And by the way, the -ez ending means son of so Fernández is the son of Fernando. I have also learnt that in some cities in Spain, the tradition was to give orphans the name of the city – so people who have Bilbao as a family name are ancestors of an orphan from that Basque city!