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How Spanish Surnames Work
In many cultures, people once had only one name. Surnames, or last names, developed from where the person was from (Leonardo da Vinci being a famous case, since he was from Vinci), from trades (such as Smith or Miller), or from some peculiar personal trait – even a physical trait like a crooked nose or big ears.
Whatever the origin of surnames may be, in Spain and in all Spanish-speaking countries, a person bears both his father’s father’s last name and his mother’s father’s last name. If this sounds a bit confusing, let’s take a simple example of how this works, using common Anglo names, pretending that the Spanish system of surnames was about to be started in our country.
Let’s say a baby boy is born to Mr. John Smith and his wife Jane, whose maiden name was Jones. (As we all know, Jones would have been Jane’s father’s last name, following the male line.) They decide to name the baby Thomas. According to the Spanish system, Thomas’s full name would be: Thomas Smith y Jones. The y is simply and. The y is usually omitted nowadays.The father’s father’s surname, Smith, comes first, followed by the mother’s father’s father’s surname. When Anglos opt to give both surnames to their children, the mother's surname often comes first and the combined surname is often hyphenated. These two differences are all you need to keep in mind when hearing or reading a Spanish name given in full.
Carrying this into a second generation, we need a future wife for Thomas. So, let’s imagine that across town, another couple, Steve Miller and his wife Theresa, whose maiden name was Brown, have a daughter. They decide to name her Ann. According to the Spanish surname system, can you guess what her full name would be? If you guessed Ann Miller Brown, you are right.
Now, when Ann and Thomas get married and have a child, they have a boy and decide to name him Richard. They then have a daughter and name her Julie. What do you suppose their full names would be? Remember, they take their father’s father’s name first and their mother’s father’s name second. I am sure you figured it out. Their names would be: Richard Smith Miller and Julie Smith Miller.
As you can see, the matrilineal, or maiden names, are preserved for one generation. Some people might view this as unfair – but in traditional Anglo culture, it is lost as soon as a woman gets married and takes her husband’s surname. What happens to a woman’s last name in the Spanish-speaking world? Nothing! She keeps it, but adds de plus the husband’s father’s father’s name. So, Thomas’s wife would be known socially as la Sra. Smith, but her full legal name would be, in the more traditional form: Ann Miller y Brown de Smith. Sometimes she might be known as la Sra. de Smith. One day, if Mr. Smith dies before her, she would be known officially as Ann Miller y Brown, la viuda de Smith (literally, the widow of Smith) or Ann Miller Brown, viuda de Smith.
In the quizzes that accompany this lesson on surnames, you’ll be tested to see if you can identify the father’s father’s names, the mother’s father’s names, and so forth. You also be asked to give the correct full names of people born to certain imaginary couples. ¡Buena suerte!
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Quizzes on Spanish surnames
Spanish surname quiz A with key
Spanish Surnames Quiz B with Key
Spanish Surname Quiz C with Key
- Author's more than 20 years experience teaching and translating Spanish.