Surnames In English And Spanish: What’s In A Name?

By D.C. Basset

To name everything, to name it all, is the endless task humankind has endeavored to accomplish since the beginning of language. Flora, fauna, activities, qualities, science, the divine, the earthly… a wonderful way to recall things without having them present. And the namers, humans, ended up having to name themselves, and thus they created words to identify one another: first names, surnames, family names, nicknames, sobriquets, middle names… Let us take a brief tour of the world of surnames in English and Spanish.

Like everything else, names can be classified. For instance: 


Mr. White has visited his new neighbor from Chile, whose name is Sr. Blanco. El profesor Pardo has met his colleague Professor Brown. El Dr. Negro es mi médico who studied under Professor Black, in England. Mario Moreno, was known as Cantinflas and my boss, Mr. Brown, liked his movies. Juan Gris was a famous painter and Mr. Gray has some of his paintings in his home.

Physical characteristics:

El Sr. Delgado es gordo, pero el Sr. Gordo es delgado y calvo.El Sr. Pedro Calvo tiene mucho pelo. Michael Strong is a weak man. Mrs. Broadhead is a pigheaded woman. Mr. John Short is ten-feet tall. Miss Small is going steady with her boss, Mr. Gay, who is straight.


Me llamo Juan Sastre, pero soy panadero.  My taylor’s name is Baker. Mr. Miller is allergic to gluten. My friend Peter Butler is very rich and has hired two butlers. El Sr. Criado es pobre y no tiene criados. Professor Cook is a terrible cook at home. Mr. Bishop seldom goes to church. Mr. Shoemaker, Zapatero, likes to go barefoot in the summer.

Surnames formed from first names:

William Williams. James James. Richard Richards. Matthew Matthews. David Davies. And in Spanish we have Andrés Andrés, Juan de Juanes, Fernando Lázaro. Mateo Mateo.

Common and animal names:

Street, CallejaMata, Bush. Madera, Wood. Pastor, Shepherd. Bull, Toro.

The genuine Spanish names come from Iberian, pre-Roman, languages. The most common name is García which is wrongly thought to be Castilian. It is of Basque origin and spread to the rest of Spain fast, and then on to America.

The endings  -az, -ez, -iz, -oz, -uz are all of Iberian, pre-Roman, origin: Ferraz, Ferriz, Ferrus, Díaz, Muñoz, Sanchiz, González, Pérez, Hernández, Gómez, Martínez, Téllez, Fernández, Ramírez. The meaning is well known: Son of, just as Mc- in Scottish, O’- in Celtic Irish, and son in English: Johnson, Williamson.

The most common names in Spanish are: García, Pérez, Muñoz, González, Fernández.

The most common names in English are: Smith, Jones, Williams and Taylor.

Normally in Spanish-speaking countries women keep their maiden names when they marry. This is becoming a trend in the Anglo-Saxon world also.

Don Juan Fernández Izquierdo must be addressed as Mr. Fernández, his surname. Izquierdo is his mother´s surname. However things are getting complicated. The law in Spain now allows parents to use the mother´s surname first, if they so wish.

Mr. John Taylor Smith, on the contrary, must be addressed as Mr. Smith, Taylor being his middle name, which may be his mother´s maiden name or another.

All a bit confusing but, like everything else in language, names are always in a state of flux and that is why the Bard lets Juliet Capulet say: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.” She implies that a name is an artificial and meaningless convention. It is, yet names are used to identify, discriminate and set people apart. Romeo Montague is a case in point.

If I did not like my name I would most certainly change it.

What is your opinion?

[Photo by Henkster and NewsTaco]

You may follow D.C. Basset on Twitter

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