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:

Boys
1. João (John)
2. Rodrigo (Roderick)
3. Martim (Martin)
4. Diogo
5. Tiago (James)
6. Tomás (Thomas)

Girls
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!


18 Responses to “Portuguese Names, Part I: Tradition”

  1. Sebastiane Says:

    Interesting. So Brazilian names are allowed? I was always under the impression that what is used in Brazil (like some of the outlandish made up names) are banned in Portugal.

    My favorite Portuguese girls name is Jacinta. I loved it ever since I heard the story of Fatima. The way its pronounced in Portuguese is so beautiful to me. I heard that Jacinta is considered dated over there, but I love it.

  2. Gabrielle Says:

    This is so interesting!

    I love Martim!

  3. eBirdie Says:

    I like Tiago and Tomas, Leonor and Matilde.

  4. Nina Says:

    The names are as beautiful as the sound of the Portuguese language! I love Beatriz, Nuno, Joao, Diogo, Rui, Mafalda, Leonor, Olimpia and Maximina.

  5. Janine Says:

    Great post, Rita! Two questions on the subject of last names. First, is the order “paternal then maternal” as in Spanish-speaking countries or the other way around? I recall reading somewhere that in Portugal and Brazil the maternal surname was first. And second, do women change their last names when they marry?

  6. Rita Says:

    Thanks :)

    You’re right, the order of surnames is the opposite of the Spanish: maternal surnames first, paternal surnames last. However, it’s absolutely possible to invert the order.

    Portuguese women can add their husbands names but they never loose their maiden names (this is why some married women have four, five surnames!). This is a recent custom in Portugal, going back to the 20th century when the dictatorship thought it was a great idea to start forcing women to take their husbands names (when none of my great-grandmothers did). From what I see most women don’t bother changing their names when they marry and those who do keep using their original names anyway. The title “Mrs João Pereira” simply doesn’t exist in Portuguese.

    Actually, a recent trend its that *both* spouses change their names after marriage – e.g. Maria Santos Silva and João Costa Pereira become Maria Santos Pereira Silva and João Costa Pereira Silva.

  7. Rita Says:

    Depends of the name – many “new” names were introduced thanks to Brazilian telenovelas: Cátia, Nádia, Vânia, Iara… but I doubt things like Kléberson, Wanderlei, or Claudineide would get pass the civil register. If the name follows the above rules it may be allowed, but most of them do not. Same thing with Brrazilian mispellings like Felipe, Luiz, Thiago, Danielly…

    I agree that Jacinta is a pretty name (plus it’s a flower name). It has I think it could become popular again, if it didn’t have such religious associations.

  8. Janine Says:

    Thank you for your reply! One more question please. When Maria and Joao have a child, what will his or her last names be?

  9. Rita Says:

    @ Janine:

    It depends of the parents preference. In this case, it would probably be “Silva Pereira” (traditional order) or “Pereira Silva” (mother’s surname last).
    HOWEVER, they could very well use “Santos Silva Costa Pereira”. It’s quite common to use four last names, that way the child carries a surname from each grandparent.
    Parents can chose the order of surnames they want, or what surnames they want to pass on. So there are innumerous surname combinations they could chose!

  10. Sebastiane Says:

    So what happens if you are, lets say, Maria Silva Pareira, and then you marry, do you add on your husbands surname on to the two surnames you already have? Like if Maria Silva Pareira marries Pedro Costa Peres, does that mean they both become Mr and Mrs Silva Pareria Costa Peres? Or at least their children?

  11. Janine Says:

    I don’t envy Portuguese genealogists.

  12. Rita Says:

    Yes, Maria could add her husband’s name(s), if she wished (and João could add hers as well). Their kids would inherit one or two surnames from each parent.

    The title Mr & Mrs makes little sense in Portuguese. It’s not common to refer to a couple by their last names. For instance, the President of the Republic and his wife are known as “President Aníbal Cavaco Silva and Dr. Maria Cavaco Silva”. No one refers to her as just Mrs Cavaco Silva, even though she uses her husbands’ name.

  13. Victoria Says:

    How does this work when it comes to making airline reservations to other countries? Airline tickets need names to match passports, but what names do people use when they make a booking to travel abroad when they can have so many?

  14. Rita Says:

    The same way you wouldn’t use your middle name when you make reservations or present yourself. In daily life most Portuguese only use the first name + last surname.
    For example, “José Mário dos Santos Félix Mourinho” is known simply as “José Mourinho”.

  15. Victoria Says:

    I like that they have rules for naming kids. I do. I’m in Argetnina and rules were a bit more strict in the past, which I kind of liked kind of didn’t… now they’re going USA style on names and people have a lot more… freedom… naming their kids (it makes me a bit anxious, lol).

    I have a question (I’m on to read the second part, maybe I’ll find the answer there)… “the gender of the child must be evident (no unisex names).”
    Are there any “unisex” names in the Portuguese language/culture? If there are, are those not accepted or should the child’s name be “Unisex.name + mandatory.gender-specific.middle-name + LNs” (In argentina, if you want to use a unisex name (there’s a list of names and there it sais if it’s male, female or unisex… some names that are considered unisex in the us are not here – like Alexis, is male.) you HAVE to give her a gender specific middle name.

  16. Rita Says:

    There are no unisex names in Portuguese, and usually laws prevent the introduction of names that aren’t gender specific.

    HOWEVER (and I think this happens in Spanish too) it’s possible for people to have a SECOND name that belongs to the opposite sex, as long as the first name reflects the person’s gender. For instance, many men are named “José Maria”, “João Maria”, “António Maria” and many women are “Maria João” (called João for short), “Maria José” (called Zé – Joe!), “Francisca Xavier”, or “Ana Luís”.

  17. Portia Says:

    My surname is Nasho and i believe it used to be Ignacio or Inacio, bt wen my parents moved to Zimbabwe years ago we lost contact wth relative, cn someone elaborate more for me please and how do mozambican portuguese talk to their ancestors?

  18. Lara Says:

    Rita, I am sorry to say but “Lara” was not introduced in Portugal by any Brazilian soap opera. It’s a name that has been gaining popularity since the 1960/1970s in Portugal and there was/is a Portuguese singer of that time, whose artistic name was/is Lara Li. The only ever time I recall seeing in a Brazilian soap opera the name Lara, was in the soap “A Favorita” in 2008, where Mariana Ximenes played the character “Lara”. From all my Brazilian friends I’ve always heard “Lara?! Nunca tinha ouvido esse nome./I never heard that name before.”

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