Spanish naming customs

Spanish naming customs are historical traditions for naming children practised in Spain. According to these customs, a person's name consists of a given name (simple or composite) followed by two family names (surnames). The first surname is usually the father's first surname, and the second the mother's first surname. In recent years, the order of the surnames can be decided at birth. Often, the practice is to use one given name and the first surname only (e.g. Miguel de Unamuno), with the full name being used in legal, formal, and documentary matters, or for disambiguation when the first surname is very common (e.g. Federico García Lorca or José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero).[1] In these cases, it is common to use only the second surname, as in “Lorca” or “Zapatero”. Note that this does not affect alphabetization: discussions of "Lorca", the Spanish poet, must be alphabetized in an index under “García Lorca", never "Lorca".

Naming system in Spain

Currently in Spain, people bear a single or composite given name (nombre in Spanish) and two surnames (apellidos in Spanish).

A composite given name comprises two (or more) single names; for example Juan Pablo is considered not to be a first and a second forename, but a single composite forename[citation needed].

The two surnames refer to each of the parental families. Traditionally, a person's first surname is the father's first surname (apellido paterno), while their second surname is the mother's first surname (apellido materno). For example, if a man named Eduardo Fernández Garrido marries a woman named María Dolores Martínez Ruiz and they have a child named José, there are several legal options, but their child would most usually be known as José Fernández Martínez.

Spanish gender equality law has allowed surname transposition since 1999,[2] subject to the condition that every sibling must bear the same surname order recorded in the Registro Civil (civil registry), but there have been legal exceptions. From 2013, if the parents of a child were unable to agree on the order of surnames, an official would decide which is to come first,[3][4][5] with the paternal name being the default option. Since June 2017, adopting the paternal name first is no longer the standard method, and parents are required to sign an agreement wherein the name order is expressed explicitly.[6][7][8] The law also grants a person the option, upon reaching adulthood, of reversing the order of their surnames. However, this legislation only applies to Spanish citizens; people of other nationalities are issued the surname indicated by the laws of their original country.[8]

Each surname can also be composite, with the parts usually linked by the conjunction y or e (and), by the preposition de (of), or by a hyphen. For example, a person's name might be Juan Pablo Fernández de Calderón García-Iglesias, consisting of a forename (Juan Pablo), a paternal surname (Fernández de Calderón), and a maternal surname (García-Iglesias).

There are times when it is impossible, by inspection of a name, to correctly analyse it. For example, the writer Sebastià Juan Arbó was alphabetised by the Library of Congress for many years under "Arbó", assuming that Sebastià and Juan were both given names. However, "Juan" was actually his first surname. Resolving questions like this, which typically involve very common names ("Juan" is rarely a surname), often requires the consultation of the person involved or legal documents pertaining to them.

Forms of address

A man named José Antonio Gómez Iglesias would normally be addressed as either señor Gómez or señor Gómez Iglesias instead of señor Iglesias, because Gómez is his first surname. Furthermore, Mr. Gómez might be informally addressed as

  1. José Antonio
  2. José
  3. Pepe (nickname for José)
  4. Antonio (Anthony)
  5. Toño (nickname for Antonio)
  6. Joselito, Josito, Joselillo, Josico or Joselín (diminutives of José)
  7. Antoñito, Tonín or Nono (diminutives of Antonio)
  8. Joseán (apocopation).

Very formally, he could be addressed with an honorific such as don José Antonio or don José.

It is not unusual, when the first surname is very common, like García in the example above, for a person to be referred to formally using both family names, or casually by his or her second surname only. For example, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero (elected President of the Spanish Government in the 2004 and 2008 general elections) is often called simply Zapatero, the name he inherited from his mother's family, since Rodríguez is a common surname and may be ambiguous. The same occurs with another former Spanish Socialist leader, Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, with the poet and dramatist Federico García Lorca, and with the painter Pablo Ruiz Picasso. As these people's paternal names are very common, they are often called with their maternal names (Rubalcaba, Lorca, Picasso). It would nonetheless be a mistake to index José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero under Z as "Zapatero", or Federico García Lorca under L as "Lorca".

In an English-speaking environment, Spanish-named people sometimes hyphenate their surnames to avoid Anglophone confusion or to fill in forms with only one space provided for last name, thus: Mr. José Antonio Gómez-Iglesias. A practical option to spare an explanation is using a single surname composed of two separate words.


Parents choose their child's given name, which must be recorded in the Registro Civil (Civil Registry) to establish his or her legal identity.[9] With few restrictions, parents can now choose any name; common sources of names are the parents' taste, honouring a relative, the General Roman Calendar nomina (nominal register), and traditional Spanish names. Legislation in Spain under Franco legally limited cultural naming customs to only Christian (Jesus, Mary, saints) and typical Spanish names (Álvaro, Jimena, etc.)[citation needed]. Although the first part of a composite forename generally reflects the gender of the child, the second personal name need not (e.g. José María Aznar). At present, the only naming limitation is the dignity of the child, who cannot be given an insulting name. Similar limitations applied against diminutive, familiar, and colloquial variants not recognized as names proper, and "those that lead to confusion regarding sex";[10] however, current law[11] allows registration of diminutive names.[12]

Spanish provincial surname concentrations: Percentage of population born with the ten most-common surnames for each province. (Source: Instituto Nacional de Estadística 2006)

María and José

Girls are often named María,[13] 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, Josefa, Josefina, Fina, Pepa, Pepi, Chepi, Pepita, 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).[14] 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.

Registered names

The Registro Civil (Civil Registry) officially records a child's identity as composed of a forename (simple or composite) and the two surnames; however, a child can be religiously baptized with several forenames, e.g. Felipe Juan Froilán de Todos los Santos. Until the 1960s, it was customary to baptize children with three forenames: the first was the main and the only one used by the child; if parents agreed, one of the other two was the name of the day's saint. Nowadays, baptizing with three or more forenames is usually a royal and noble family practice.


In Spain, upon marrying, one does not change one's surname. In some instances, such as high society meetings, the partner's surname can be added after the person's surnames using the preposition de. An example would be a Leocadia Blanco Álvarez, married to a Pedro Pérez Montilla, may be addressed as Leocadia Blanco de Pérez or as Leocadia Blanco Álvarez de Pérez. This format is not used in everyday settings and has no legal value.[15]

Surname distribution: the most common surnames in Spain, by province of residence.

Generational transmission

In the generational transmission of surnames, the paternal surname's precedence eventually eliminates the maternal surnames from the family lineage. Contemporary law (1999) allows the maternal surname to be given precedence, but most people[citation needed] observe the traditional paternal–maternal surname order. So the daughter and son of Ángela López Sáenz and Tomás Portillo Blanco are usually called Laura Portillo López and Pedro Portillo López, but could also be called Laura López Portillo and Pedro López Portillo. The two surnames of all siblings must be in the same order when recorded in the Registro Civil.

Patrilineal surname transmission was not always the norm in Spanish-speaking societies. Prior to the mid-eighteenth century,[citation needed] when the current paternal-maternal surname combination norm was adopted, Hispanophone societies often practised matrilineal surname transmission, giving children the maternal surname, and, occasionally, giving children a grandparent's surname (borne by neither parent) for prestige – being perceived as gentry – and profit, flattering the matriarch or the patriarch in hope of inheriting land. The Spanish naming customs include the orthographic option of conjoining the surnames with the conjunction particle y, or e before a name starting with 'I', 'Hi' or 'Y', (both meaning "and") e.g. José Ortega y Gasset, or Tomás Portillo y Blanco, or Eduardo Dato e Iradier, following an antiquated aristocratic usage.

Not every surname is a single word; such conjoining usage is common with doubled surnames (maternal-paternal), ancestral composite surnames bequeathed to the following generations – especially when the paternal surname is socially undistinguished. José María Álvarez del Manzano y López del Hierro is an example, his name comprising the composite single name José María, and two composite surnames Álvarez del Manzano and López del Hierro. Other examples derive from church place-names such as San José. When a person bears doubled surnames, the means of disambiguation is to insert y between the paternal and maternal surnames.

In case of illegitimacy – when the child's father either is unknown or refuses to recognise his son or daughter legally – the child bears both of the mother's surnames, which may be interchanged.[16]

Occasionally, a person with a common paternal surname and an uncommon maternal surname becomes widely known by the maternal surname. The artist Pablo Ruiz Picasso, the poet Federico García Lorca, and the politician José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero are examples. With similar effect, the foreign paternal surname of the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Hughes Galeano (his father was British) is usually omitted. (As a boy, however, he occasionally signed his name as Eduardo Gius, using a Hispanicised approximation of the English pronunciation of "Hughes".) Such use of the second last name by itself is colloquial, however, and may not be applied in legal contexts.

Also rarely, a person may become widely known by both surnames, with an example being tennis player Arantxa Sánchez Vicario – whereas her older brothers Emilio and Javier, also professional tennis players, are mainly known only by the paternal surname of Sánchez in everyday life, although they also would formally be addressed as Sánchez Vicario.

Navarrese and Álavan surnames

Where Basque and Romance cultures have linguistically long coexisted, the surnames denote the father's name and the (family) house or town/village. Thus the Romance patronymic and the place-name are conjoined with the prepositional particle de ("from"+"provenance"). For example, in the name José Ignacio López de Arriortúa, the composite surname López de Arriortúa is a single surname, despite Arriortúa being the original family-name. This can lead to confusion, because the Spanish López and the Basque Arriortúa are discrete surnames in Spanish and Basque respectively. This pattern was also in use in other Basque districts, but was phased out in most of the Basque-speaking areas and only remained in place across lands of heavy Romance influence, i.e. some central areas of Navarre and most of Álava. To a lesser extent, this pattern has been also present in Castile, where Basque-Castilian bilingualism was common in northern and eastern areas up to the 13th century.