Spain Personal Names

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Understanding customs used in Spanish names can help you identify your ancestors in records. Learn to recognize name variations and see clues in names.

Online Tools[edit | edit source]

For regions using the following languages, see this map..

Surnames[edit | edit source]

  • The typical Spanish name has four parts: first given name, second given name, father's surname, and mother's surname.
  • When a woman marries a man, she keeps her maiden surname.
  • Often, the practice is to use one given name and the first surname most of the time (e.g. "Miguel de Unamuno" for Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo); the complete name is typically reserved for legal, formal, and documentary matters. [1]

"de (of)", "y (and)", and "e (and)"[edit | edit source]

  • In Spanish, the preposition particle "de" ("of") is used as a conjunction in two-surname spelling styles, and to disambiguate a surname, e.g. Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba, Pedro López de Ayala, and Vasco Núñez de Balboa, as in many conquistador names.
  • In the sixteenth century, the Spanish adopted the conjunction "y" ("and") to distinguish a person's surnames, e.g. Luis de Góngora y Argote or Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes. The conjunction '"y" avoids confusion when the paternal surname might appear to be a given name. Without it, the Santiago Ramón y Cajal might appear to be named Santiago Ramón and surnamed Cajal, when actually his given name is Santiago and Ramón y Cajal is his surname.
  • When the maternal surname begins with an "i" vowel sound (written with I, Y, Hi + consonant), Spanish substitutes "e in place of y", e.g. Eduardo Dato e Iradier.[2]

Regional Differences[edit | edit source]

There are unique changes in customs for these regions of Spain:

Jewish Surname Customs[edit | edit source]

Jews followed the custom of using only a given name and the name of the father, such as Isaac, son of Abraham (Isaac ben Abraham). Most Jews did not adopt hereditary family names until required to do so by law.

Surnames Historical Development[edit | edit source]

  • Before record keeping began, most people had only one name, such as Juan. Until the tenth century, common people did not use a surname.
  • As the population increased, however, it became necessary to distinguish between individuals with the same name. Additionally, the Council of Trent (1545–1563) made it mandatory to keep parish records that would list names of the child, parents, and godparents, which required distinguishing relationships between family members. The problem was usually solved by adding descriptive information.
  • In Spain, the name system was well established by the 1100s, and the naming customs of Spain became the basis for other Spanish-speaking countries. The four influences that played a part in the development of Spanish surnames were patronymical terms, occupational terms, descriptive or nickname terms, and geographical terms (estates, manors, or dominions). Examples of these influences are:
    • Patronymic names (based on a parent’s name, usually the father’s name) such as Juan Martinez (Juan, son of Martín) or Juan Domínguez (Juan, son of Domingo)
    • Occupational names (based on the person’s trade) such as José Herrera (José the Blacksmith) or Juan El Molinero (Juan the Miller)
    • Descriptive names or nicknames (based on a unique quality of the person) such as Domingo Calvo (Domingo the Bald-Headed) or Juan El Moreno (Juan the Dark)
  • Geographic or toponymic names (based on a person’s residence) such as Domingo del Río (Domingo from near a river) or Juan de Córdova (Juan from the city of Córdoba)
  • At first, surnames applied only to one person and not to the whole family. After a few generations, these names became hereditary and were used from father to son.
  • Surnames were first used by the nobility and wealthy landowners. Later the custom was followed by merchants and townspeople and eventually by the rural population. This process took two or three centuries.
  • It is not possible to determine the exact year or even the century when a particular family name was taken. By the end of the thirteenth century, many families determined to retain the patronymic name without continuing to change the name from generation to generation.
  • In 1568, Phillip II decreed that the Moors should abandon their names and adopt Spanish names. Thus, some Moorish names such as Ben-egas became Venegas.

Surname Changes of Immigrants in the United States[edit | edit source]

As Immigrants moved into English-speaking countries, their surnames were impacted in a variety of ways.

  • Many families that immigrated to the United States reversed the two surnames. Then the first surname is the mother's and the second surname the father’s.
  • Most of the time the surname spelling changed to accommodate the different phonetic spelling in the English language. In other words, the recorder tried to write the name the way he heard it.
  • Surnames may also have been translated outright into English, sometimes with a slight twist.
  • Within the community, such as the local parish, immigrants may continue to use the original name, while at the same time using English-language equivalents when dealing with local government, census takers, and other English speakers.
  • Different branches of the same family may adopt various surname spellings.
  • Prior to 1900, formal surname changes documented in local court records are relatively rare.
  • During the early 20th Century, especially the World War I era, surname changes are recorded more frequently, as immigrants or, more often, their children, tried to adopt more neutral surnames.

Given Names[edit | edit source]

  • Children are usually given the names of Catholic saints, martyrs or a version of names for Mary, the mother of Jesus.
  • Many children were given several names, usually two or three. Each name was thought to give protection from the saint named. Traditionally, one of the names had to be the saint assigned to the birthdate.
  • To maximize the divine protection, some children were named for a male and a female saint. The first name will tell you the sex of the child. Usually, only the names of María and José are borrowed from the opposite sex.

Name Endings[edit | edit source]

Spanish names also may be gendered by way of spelling. In general, only male names end with "o": e.g., Francisco. Only female names end with "a": e.g., Francisca.

Use of María, José (Joseph), and Jesús[edit | edit source]

  • Girls are often named María, honouring the Virgin Mary, by appending either a shrine, place, or religious-concept suffix-name to María.
  • In daily life, such women omit the "Mary of the ..." nominal prefix, and use the suffix portion of their composite names as their public, rather than legal, identity. Hence, women with Marian names such as María de los Ángeles (Mary of the Angels), María del Pilar (Mary of the Pillar), and María de la Luz (Mary of the Light), are normally addressed as Ángeles (Angels), Pilar (Pillar), and Luz (Light); however, each might be addressed as María.
  • Nicknames such as Maricarmen for María del Carmen, Marisol for "María (de la) Soledad" ("Our Lady of Solitude", the Virgin Mary), Dolores or Lola for María de los Dolores ("Our Lady of Sorrows"), Mercedes or Merche for María de las Mercedes ("Our Lady of Mercy"), etc. are often used.
  • Also, parents can simply name a girl María, or Mari without a suffix portion.
  • It is not unusual for a boy's formal name to include María, preceded by a masculine name, e.g. José María Aznar (Joseph Mary Aznar) or Juan María Vicencio de Ripperdá (John Mary Vicencio de Ripperdá). Equivalently, a girl can be formally named María José (Mary Joseph), e.g. skier María José Rienda, and informally named Marijose, Mariajo, Majo, Ajo, Marisé or even José in honor of St. Joseph.
  • María as a masculine name is often abbreviated in writing as M. (José M. Aznar), Ma. (José Ma. Aznar), or M.ª (José M.ª Morelos).
  • It is unusual for any names other than the religiously significant María and José to be used in this way except for the name Jesús that is also very common and can be used as "Jesús" or "Jesús María" for a boy and "María Jesús" for a girl, and can be abbreviated as "Sus", "Chus" and other nicknames.[3]

For Further Reading[edit | edit source]

  • Spanish naming customs in Wikipedia.
  • Gorden, Raymond L. Spanish Personal Names. Yellow Springs, Ohio: Antioch College, 1968. (FHL book 980 D4g; film 0924066.)At various libraries (WorldCat)
  • Gosnell, Charles F. Spanish Personal Names, Principles Governing Their Formation and Use. New York: H.W. Wilson Co., 1938 (reprinted by Blaine Ethridge Books, Detroit, 1971). (FHL book 980 D4go.)At various libraries (WorldCat)
  • Gran Diccionario de los nombres de persona, origen, significado y onomástica de más de 5.500 nombres (Great Dictionary of Personal Names, Origin, Significance and Onomastics of the Major 5,500 Names). Barcelona: Editorial de Vecchi, S.A., 1998. (FHL book 946 D46g.)

FamilySearch Library[edit | edit source]

Additional books are listed under:

References[edit | edit source]

  1. "Spanish naming customs", in Wikipedia,, accessed 19 February 2021.
  2. "Spanish naming customs", in Wikipedia,, accessed 19 February 2021.
  3. "Spanish naming customs", in Wikipedia,, accessed 19 February 2021.