Tag Archives: apellidos

¿What’s in a Spanish name?

In today’s New York Times, Pamela Paul describes the challenges that she faces because, like many women in the United States, she uses her maiden name in professional contexts and her married name otherwise. These include practical issues, like whether her husband can use her Costco card; emotional challenges, like her children’s “permanent state of confusion”; and even legal issues. Ms. Paul was once detained at an airport for 40 minutes because her ticket and her ID had different names.

Since I’m always wearing my “Spanish glasses”, so to speak, I was immediately struck by how unnecessary these issues must seem to folks who follow the Hispanic naming system. Married women keep the same two last names they’ve had since birth: one apellido from their father and one from their mother. They can optionally add de X to show that they’re married to a Sr. X. This seems somewhat sexist, implying that a wife is her husband’s property, but at least it’s simple and consistent.

A celebrity example may be in order. The adorable Suri Cruise’s full name, Hispanic-style, would be Suri Cruise Holmes, after her father (Tom Cruise) and mother (Katie Holmes). If she were to marry, say, Knox Pitt Jolie (the son of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie), she could optionally go by the longer name Suri Cruise Holmes de Pitt. Suri and Knox’s children would all have the last names Pitt Cruise.

last namesI don’t have a dog in this hunt, personally. I kept my maiden name and haven’t had many problems with it. In fact, it’s a useful way to weed out sales calls, since the caller will often ask for me by my husband’s name or the reverse. But I do sometimes wish that the United States followed the Hispanic system so that there would be no ambiguity.

I’d love to hear from some readers from Spanish-speaking countries about their personal experiences with apellidos. How often do women use the de X convention? Is there any confusion with school registrations or other formalities involving children? Are you happy to be following the Hispanic system?


Spanish patronymics

Patronymics — names that mean “son of” someone — are something of a mystery in Spanish.

In English and other Germanic languages, most patronymics contain the actual word for son or daughter, as in English Samuelson, Danish Christensen, or Icelandic Mínervudóttir. Hebrew patronymics are just as transparent, although the word ben “son” is a prefix, not a suffix. David Ben-Gurion’s last name was a famous example. But the Spanish patronymic ending -ez, seen in names like Martínez and Enríquez, is clearly unrelated to hijo.

There are no definitive explanations for the origin of -ezRalph Penny, my history of Spanish guru, attributes it tentatively to possessive (genitive) forms of Germanic names like Roderick that came into early Spanish with the fall of Rome. The genitive form Roderici (i.e., Roderick’s) was shortened to Ruiz, with the all-important final -z, and Roderick itself to Ruy. Once established as a patronymic ending, the -z spread to other names, including those shown below.


Some Spanish patronymics (patronímicos), plus Chávez

To complicate matters, some Spanish patronymics derive from names that are now obsolete. Have you ever met a Gomo (the source of Gómez)? A Velazco? A Valdo? Other Spanish last names end with -ez by mere coincidence, like Chávez (as in the late Hugo), which comes from the Portuguese word for “keys.”

As a teacher I’m often reluctant to recommend Wikipedia. However, its resources on patronymics are impressive. They include

  • descriptions of patronymics from languages around the world
  • a long list of Spanish patronymics, most with -ez endings, but others with -iz-oz, and -az
  • in the same article, some alternative, Basque-centric theories of the origins of Spanish -ez

By the way, most of these patronymics have a written accent mark. This is simply because the next-to-last syllable is stressed even though the last letter of the word is a consonant. Explanations here, here, here, and a zillion other places on the web (not to mention textbooks, dictionaries, and the like).