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Understanding surnames and given names can help you find and identify your ancestors in the records. Because names sometimes changed for many families throughout time, it is important to know some of the customs concerning naming practices in Greece.
Before record keeping began, most people had only one name, such as John. As the population increased, it became necessary distinguish among individuals with the same name. The problem was usually solved by adding descriptive information. John became John the smith, John the son of Matthew, John the short, or John the Athenian. At first, surnames applied only to one person and not to the whole family. After a few generations, these names became hereditary. Surnames developed from the following major sources:
- Patronymic, based on a parent’s given name and an added suffix meaning “son of” or “little.” The ending -opoulos is most common in the Peleponnese area. Thus John the son of Nicholas would be Ioannis Nikolopoulos. The possessive case (-ou) was also often used as a patronymic resulting in names such as Grigoriou from Grigorios. Other patronymic endings include: -akis (from Crete); -akos, -ias, -eas (from the Mani region of south Peloponnesus); -atos (from Kefallinia); -elis (from Lesvos); -ikis, -ikas, -akas (from Thessalia); -oudis (from northern Greece); and -idis (from Asia Minor).
- Occupational, based on the person’s trade, include the following: Raptis (tailor), Papoutsis (shoemaker), Mylonas (miller), Mylonatos or Mylonopoulous (son of the miller), Karvounis (coal man), Kapetanidis (son of ship captain), Anagnostopoulos (son of the acolyte, assistant priest), Sakellariou (son of the Sakellarios, a Byzantine ecclesiastical title), Kaffetzis (coffee house owner), Kaltsis (stockings, probably one who sold stockings), and Ktenas (comb, probably one who sold or made combs). The name Karampinopoulos (son of a gun) probably referred to the son of one who bore arms. Priests of the Orthodox Church married and had families. Their children’s surnames often begin with Papa- (Priest) and are among the most common in Greece.
- Descriptive or nickname, based on a unique quality of the person, such as Mauros (black) for a person with black hair, dark complexion, or perhaps one who wore black clothing. Other such Greek names include Kontos (short), Spanos (beardless), Spanidis or Spanopoulos (son of the beardless one), Xanthakos (blond), Kokkinis (red), Karapaulakis (son of darkhaired Paul), Galanis (blue-eyed), Katsaros (curly), Makris (long), and Koutsogiorgos (lame George). Other names reflect personality traits such as: Leventis (brave, honorable), Onassis (useful), Katsoufis (never cheerful), Markogiannis (clever John), and Leontidis (lion’s son).
- Geographical, based on a person’s place of origin, such as Kritikos (Cretan), Thessalonikios (of Thessalonika), Souliotis (of Souli, a region in the Epirus mountains), Arvanitis (Albanian), and Nisiotis (from the islands). From a name such as Kypros (Cyprus) can be formed several names: Kypraios, Kypraiou, Kypriadis, Kypriotis, Kypriotakis, and Kyprizoglou. A name such as Vlahos could refer to the Vlach people (minority ethnic group from the Pindus mountains) or from the occupation of a shepherd, which was the traditional occupation of this people.
- Foreign terms, from Turkish, Spanish, Italian, Albanian, and Slavic, could have been modified into a Greek surname: Karas (Turkish: black), Paras (Turkish: money), Lekes (Turkish: mark, stain), Katsakis (Turkish: fugitive, escapee), Delapatridis (Italian: of the homeland), and Kolias (Albanian for Nikolaos).
Surnames were first used by the nobility and wealthy land owners. Later the custom was followed by merchants and townspeople and eventually by the rural population. This process took two or three centuries. In the Balkan peninsula, the practice of adopting fixed family surnames developed earlier (Byzantine times) than in Western Europe. Family ties are very important in Greece and extend beyond the immediate family. Family surnames came to be applied to these extended families or clans. This practice developed gradually from the time of the Byzantine empire. Even after surnames began to be used, a single given name was often all that was ever needed or used in everyday village life. On the other hand, the Greek custom of naming children after their grandparents soon led to many individuals in the same community with the same names. Nicknames were used to distinguish among persons with the same name.
These nicknames developed just as the other surnames had started—from fathers’ names, occupations, or descriptions. For example, if there were several individuals named Paulos in the Doukas family, one could be called Paulos Kontos (Paulos the short), another might be called Karapaulos (black-haired Paulos), and another might be called Paulos Raptidis (Paulos the tailor’s son). The children of these individuals might take the original Doukas surname or might take the nickname. In the next few generations there may be so many individuals in the Karapaulos family with the name Ioannis that the process starts over again.
Changing names was not uncommon, especially in villages, until the mid-nineteenth century when Greece won its independence from Turkey. Surnames became much more firmly fixed after that time; however, nicknames became such a part of Greek social life that they sometimes appear in official records. Nevertheless, the adoption of new surnames still occasionally occurred as late as the early 1900s.
Most surnames have different endings when the bearer is male or female. For example, a man has the name Papaioannis. His wife or daughter would be: Papaioannou.
Some of the most common male and female endings include:
Grammatical endings can affect all Greek words, including the names of people and places.
All Greeks have a patronymic name in addition to their surname. It is formed from the father’s given name and is used as a middle name. The father’s given name is listed in the possessive form. For example, Georgios, son of Nikolaos Kanakis would be Georgios Nikolaou Kanakis and his sister Ioanna would be Ioanna Nikolaou Kanaki. However, when a woman marries, not only her surname changes, but also her middle name changes to her husband’s given name.
According to Greek tradition, a child’s name is chosen by the godfather. The following pattern may be helpful in researching family groups and determining the parents of the mother and father:
- The first male child was usually named for the father’s father.
- The second boy was named for the mother’s father.
- The first female child was named for the father’s mother.
- The second girl was named for the mother’s mother.
- Additional children were often named for uncles, other relatives, friends, or saints.
This pattern was not always followed as the godfather chose the name, but it can sometimes give clues for the names of grandparents. A son is never named for his father unless the father died prior to the child’s birth. Likewise a daughter is never named after her mother unless the mother dies in childbirth. If a child, especially the eldest son, dies young, then another son, born later, would usually be given the same name. If it looked like a young son would die, he might be named Theoharis, meaning “God’s grace.”
Most of the time when a man joined the clergy, he would receive a new name. If his given name were Sokratis, he might take the name Paulos or some other saint’s name. The ordained person is usually called by his surname (or new name) with the prefix Papa, indicating his title. For example, if his name were Sokratis Kanakis and his new name were Paulos, he would be called Pappapaulos or Papakanakis, but never Sokratis nor Papasokratis.
Sometimes women were not known by their own given names but by a given name substitute. For example, the name Presvytera might be used in the place of the priest’s wife’s name. It actually means “the wife of an elder.” Another example is if a wife is listed by the name of her husband with the ending (-aina) or (-ina). A wife could also be listed by the surname of the husband as if it were a given name. For example, a husband’s surname might be Karalis, and his wife’s given name might be listed as Karalina.
Also, for every Greek given name, there may exist several variations or nicknames which may appear quite different. For example, the Greek equivalent to Catherine, Aikaterini may have the following possible variations: Kaiti, Katina, Katerina, Katilo, Katinio. Likewise, the Greek equivalent to John, Ioannis, has at least the following variations: Giannis, Giagkos, Giannakos, and Giannelos.
Some books are available that discuss names in Greece. A description of Greek naming practices and given names is:
- Greek Personal Names. Washington, D.C.: Central Intelligence Agency, 1961. (FHL book 949.5 D4u; film 1344072).
For descendants of a Greek immigrant to the United States, it may be a problem to determine the actual name of an immigrant ancestor. Some immigrants were so eager to be assimilated into American life, that they dropped their Greek names and adopted American names. Given names were generally translated to their closest equivalents: Ioannis to John, Paulos to Paul, Euaggelia to Angela. Sometimes where there was not an equivalent English name, the new name does not represent the original name at all: Athanasios might have become Bill or Joe.
Surnames were likewise anglicized. Many were simply shortened, as in cases where Papageorgiou or Papanikolaou became Papas, or Hristopoulos or Nikolopoulos became Poulos, or Anagnostopoulos became Agnew (as in the family of a former vice-president of the United States). Sometimes only the spelling changed, as in Karydids to Caridis. The name may have been translated, as in Raptis to Taylor or Ioannatos to Johnson. The spelling may have also been changed so the name was easier to pronounce, as in Grigoriou to Gregory.