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Spanish Names

To Anglo-Saxon ears, many traditional Spanish girls’ names sound odd – names like Pilar (which means pillar), Belén (which means Bethlehem), Cruz (meaning cross) or Asunción (Assumption). In fact, these girls’ names refer to famous Virgins. There are many others – such as Our Lady of the Sorrows (Dolores), Our Lady of the Dew (Rocío), Our Lady of Remedies (Remedias), Our Lady of the Dove (Paloma). Concepción and its diminutives Concha and Conchita all refer to the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary.

Girls called Pilar are named after the most famous Virgin of all, Our Lady of the Pillar, patroness of Spain, its Guardia Civil and the whole of the Hispanic world. (Legend has it the Virgin Mary appeared to the disciple James in Zaragoza, Spain, seated on a pillar supported by angels. The original pillar, which Mary gave to James, is said to be in the Basilica of Zaragoza.)

Spanish men’s names tend to be biblical, such as Tomás, Iago (James), Pedro (Peter), José (Joseph), Juan (John), Pablo (Paul) … And, of course, Jesús. (Spanish mother overheard in supermercado: ‘Jesús, stop annoying your brother!’)

Brits tend to get confused by the Spanish system of double surnames. It’s actually a very sensible system, especially for small villages where intermarriage was common and there were only a few family names. Any Spanish man or boy and any unmarried woman will carry their father’s name followed by their mother’s name. On marriage, a woman will drop the mother’s name and take the husband’s name before her father’s name (and change her title from Señorita to Señora).

Clear as mud? Well, under that system, I would have started life as Señorita June Priscott Staddon – which would show I was unmarried, given name June (Spaniards usually have more than one given name), my father’s father’s name was Priscott and my mother’s father’s name was Staddon. After marrying David Whitaker, I would have become Señora June Whitaker Priscott – showing my married status, my husband’s father’s name and my father’s father’s name. Our children would also carry the surnames Whitaker Priscott (father’s paternal name followed by mother’s paternal name). This would never change for our son, but our daughter, on marriage, would take her husband’s paternal name followed by Whitaker.

A strange result of this system is that children do not have the same two surnames as their father!

Perhaps the most important thing for Brits to remember about these double names is that the first surname is always the important one – so, when addressing or referring to el Señor Garcia Rodriguez, you should never call him Señor Rodriguez. That would be a terrible gaffe! He is either Señor Garcia or, being very formal, Señor Garcia Rodriguez.

‘Ha!’ I hear you say. ‘What about those two famous Spaniards Pablo Ruiz Picasso, always known as Picasso, and Federico Garcia Lorca, always known as Lorca?’ The answer is they both went against the grain and chose to use their maternal names – probably because Ruiz and Garcia are, respectively, the second most common and the most common Spanish surnames. Certainly, Picasso and Lorca are more artistic-sounding and memorable.