July 7th, 2010
A ginormous thank you goes out to our reader Rita, a Portuguese native who decodes the name traditions of her home country. Rita was so thorough, we’ve broken it down to a two part series. Tune in tomorrow for the style quotient.
Portugal – that small rectangle caught between Spain and the Atlantic Ocean. Home to poets, navigators, warriors, and footballers. Our national anthem describes us as “heroes of the sea, noble people” – and while that isn’t always the case, all through our 800 years of history we Portuguese were never content with our small amount of land and set out to discover new lands and new horizons. Nowadays our Empire is no more, but we were left with a greater inheritance – the Portuguese language, the sixth most spoken language in the world. This means many of these names are also used in Brazil, Angola, Mozambique, and by the millions of Portuguese immigrants spread all over the world.
Two things should be taken in account when discussing Portuguese names. First of all, in Portugal people inherit surnames from both sides of the family – meaning a regular Portuguese citizen has two to four family names. Confusing? Actually, that is the reason why in Portugal first names are so important – you are far more likely to be addressed by your given name than by one of your many surnames.
Portugal also has strict naming laws. There is a list of officially approved names expecting parents can chose from. Names have to be traditionally Portuguese, unless one of the parents is foreign (I wouldn’t be allowed to name my daughter “Sakura” or “Elizabeth”); they must be spelt according to the rules of Portuguese orthography (e.g. Filipe instead of Philipe, Filippe, or Fellipe); no nicknames as official names (Beatriz, not Bia); also, the gender of the child must be evident (no unisex names).
To many of you these rules may seem excessive or a violation of the parent’s freedom – but here we have the mentality that naming a child isn’t a right, but rather a responsibility. The general consensus in Portugal is that children must be protected and should not be subject to ridiculous or misunderstandings because of their names. There’s also an attitude of protecting our language and our culture – of which names are a very big part of.
As in most culturally Catholic countries, Portuguese names were mainly inspired by the Calendar of Saints – thus it’s no wonder the most common names are still linked to well-known saints: José (St Joseph), João (St John), António (St Anthony of Lisbon), Isabel (St Elizabeth of Aragon), Maria (the Virgin Mary), Ana (St Anne). To that list you can add names that are strongly connected to our history, such as Nuno, Rui, Vasco, Fernando, Teresa, Rita, Mafalda, or Leonor.
As a rule people tend to stick to traditional names, but this hasn’t always been the case. Among older generations it’s normal to find rare, impressive monikers, some of which sound quite outrageous nowadays (my grandfather is a Braúlio; names in my family tree include Palmira, Olímpia, and Maximina). In the 1970-80s it was common to bestow children with foreign names taken from Brazilian soap operas. These names are nowadays seen as tacky and extremely dated – especially when paired together in combinations such as Cátia Vanessa or Cristiano Ronaldo.
For the last 20 odd years, however, most Portuguese parents have been choosing classic, simple names, many of whom used to be found only among noble families and history books. Names that are too “modern” aren’t fashionable right now, and are often perceived as “tacky” or even “low class”. In 2008, the most popular names (and their equivalents in English) were:
1. João (John)
2. Rodrigo (Roderick)
3. Martim (Martin)
5. Tiago (James)
6. Tomás (Thomas)
1. Maria (Mary)
2. Beatriz (Beatrice)
3. Ana (Anne or Hannah)
4. Leonor (Eleanor)
5. Mariana (Marianne)
6. Matilde (Matilda)
Please continue to Part II for the fashionable names!