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Making sense of old handwriting

Spanish Names

Deciphering names in an old handwritten document is not as easy as one might suppose. This could be due to the widespread use of abbreviations, the difficulty in reading the handwriting, or the unique practices found in the language. To make this process easier, below are glossaries of names and explanations of the naming practices you will encounter.

Masculine Names
Feminine Names

Given Names

Given names in Spanish countries can often pose a unique problem. Dr. George R. Ryskamp outlines these potential difficulties in Finding Your Hispanic Roots, saying:

"In some places only one name will be given at the time of birth and baptism; in many other places, two, three, or even more names are given... even six names are not impossible. ...¶ The most common variation found in given names over a person's lifetime is where that person is given more than one nombre at the time of his birth, but all of the given names are not repeated at the time of his marriage or at the birth of his children. A person often decided in later life not to use the first in the series of given names that he received at birth" (103).

Thus there could be a man who at birth was christened with the given names of Mateo, Marcos, Lucas, and Juan with the surname of García. However, later in life, he goes by Lucas García and is recorded as such in his marriage certificate and the birth registers of his children, but then in his last will and death record, he was recorded as Juan García. As such, it is important to be careful when recording names so as not to create duplicate identities accidentally.

Many names were chosen according to the liturgical calendar. This can lead to combinations that seem strange to the average English speaker, such as José María being a name for a man and María José being for a woman. However, this can sometimes give researchers clues as to when a person was born. A good example is if a person has the name María Reyes or Melchor Gaspar Baltasar, he or she was most likely born around the sixth of January and named in honor of the Día de los reyes or Day of the Wise men, which is still a popular holiday is Spanish countries. It is also still a common practice to name children after their godparents or older relatives. Also, because of the high rate of child mortality, it was not uncommon that a child would be given the name of a deceased sibling; it is important to keep this practice in mind, or else you might find that a single person has several birthdates when, in reality, they are two, individual people.


Surnames in Spain and in her daughter countries have a unique history.

In the 8th century, the germanic Visigoths conquered all of Roman Hispania. Since these peoples were German in origin, they did not follow the Roman pattern of nōmen gentīlicium, or family names; instead, the Visigoths followed a patronymic system. The patronymic system is where the son inherits the father's name as his surname; this is the origin of many English surnames such as Robinson or Ericson, which literally mean "the son of Robin" and "the son of Eric." However, the Visigoths did this with the suffix -ez or -iz. Therefore the son of Sancho would be Sánchez, and the son of Fernando would be Fernández. This is the origin of many Spanish surnames.

During the sixteenth century, many of the noble houses of Spain began to use a double surname system which became universal in Spanish-speaking countries by the middle of the eighteenth century. This naming system is unique to the Spanish-speaking world, distinguishing it from other nations; however, this has caused many problems for those who are not of Spanish descent or are not familiarized with the system. In the Spanish double surname system, a child would inherit both surnames, one from the father and one from the mother, in that order. Thus if there were a child born in the Basque lands with the given name of Felipe born to Juan Cruz Arizmendi and María Yrizar Catarain, then the child's full name would be Felipe Arizmendi Yrizar. Recently, due to the immigration of Spanish-speaking people into nonSpanish-speaking countries, there has been a trend to hyphenate the surnames and thereby help others to not confuse the paternal surname as a middle name, for example: Felipe Arizmendi-Yrizar.

Another unique aspect of this naming system is that women in most Hispanic countries retain their surnames throughout their lives, even after marriage. Thus if our child, Felipe Arizmendi Yrizar met a lovely lady in his town named Antonia Menjou Caballero when they were married, Antonia would keep her full name. Although many times the husband's surname was attached at the end with de (of), thus Antonia would be known as Antonia Menjou Caballero de Arizmendi.

While this system may be a bit confusing or odd to English-speaking researchers at first, the value they offer to the family historian becomes really apparent. However, prior to the near-universal adoption of the double surname system, there could be great flexibility in naming practices that could depend on region and family status. Since this is the case, it is important to be careful with names that do not have a double surname, and more information about these various practices can be found in "Section B: Naming Systems" in Finding Your Hispanic Roots.

Please note that in Catalonia, there is what may appear to be a double surname system; however, they employ a different system. To learn more, see Catalan Names in the Catalan Tutorial. Another notable exception to the double surname system is the country of Argentina, where they follow the expected pattern of the woman taking her husband's surname.

Additional Resources

¿Y tú, cómo te llamas? is a book about the indigenous names used in Mexico. It is available in PDF format here (the link to download the PDF is on the lower part of the page). The book is only available in Spanish.

Another book that may be of interest to those who research Mexican surnames is El Análisis Geodemográfico de Apellidos en México. It is available in PDF format here.

These websites may also help:


Paleography Introduction