Brazil Names, Personal

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Understanding surnames and given names can help you find and identify your ancestors in the records.


Before record keeping began, most people had only one name, such as João (John). As the population increased it became necessary to distinguish between individuals with the same name. The problem was usually solved by adding descriptive information.

Until the 10th century, common people did not use a surname. The Councils of Trent (1545–1563) made it mandatory to keep parish records that listed names of the child, parents, and godparents.

The four influences that played a part in the development of Portuguese surnames were patronymical terms, occupational terms, descriptive or nickname terms, and geographical terms (estates, manors, dominions). Examples of these influences are:

Patronymic, based on a parent’s name, such as João o filho de Mateus (John son of Mateus) and João Domingues (John son of Domingos).

Occupational, based on the person’s trade, such as João o Ferreiro (John the blacksmith)

Descriptive or nickname, based on a unique quality of the person, such as João o Baixo (John the short).

Geographical, based on a person’s residence, such as João de Aveiro (John of Aveiro).

At first, surnames applied only to one person and not to the whole family. After a few generations, these names became hereditary and were used from father to son.

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 Portugal the name system was well established by the 1100s. The naming customs of Brazil were the same as those in Portugal.

It is not possible to determine the exact year or even the century when a particular family name was taken. By the end of the 13th century many families determined to retain the patronymic without continuing to change the name from generation to generation. Thus, the hereditary sobrenomes (surnames) were in use by the time of the discovery of the New World.

In Brazil many surnames of Portuguese origin were given to the native Indians and Negro children when the priests baptized them. Others were simply baptized João, José, Maria, and so forth, and later descendants obtained a surname.

Another distinctive practice of the Portuguese naming system was the double and compound surnames. The person would be known by his maternal and paternal surnames. Compound surnames (sobrenomes compostos) can be found with or without a preposition (de, do, da, d’). Examples are Maria Ferreira de Castilhos, José João Costa Silva, and Francisco Rosa e Silva. Generally the last surname came from the father.

While most present-day names are taken from parents’ surnames, historically the surnames might be those of the more prominent family and even those from grandparents. During the first half of the 1800s a male child often took the surname of his father, while a female child took the surname of her mother.

In many cases a surname was arbitrarily adopted. Family grudges, popular surnames, names related to a location, the desire to avoid undesirable family connections, or the desire to express appreciation or sympathy to someone resulted in changes of a surname. These changes create serious difficulties for genealogists.

Historically, before the last 150 years, women did not attach their husband’s surname. Now a women who married a Martins would attach the married surname (sobrenome de casado) de Martins to her first single (paternal) surname (sobrenome de solteira). And when she was widowed she would become Viúva (widow) de Martins. In Brazil "de" was used with surnames as a preposition (of or from) and not as an indicator of nobility.

In Brazil, until recently the surname was seldom passed on to the children in a way that it is helpful to link families. Last names also varied from one record to another. Often a person’s full name had a half dozen different variations. This is especially true for women. A man could be Joaquim da Silva Paranhos in one record and Joaquim José Paranhos, Joaquim José da Silva, and Joaquim José da Silva Paranhos in other documents. A woman could be listed variously as Maria Isabel da Silva, Maria da Silva Conceição, Maria Isabel, or Maria da Conceição da Silva. In addition, the name Conceição could be replaced by Encarnação, and an additional name Livramento or das Dores might be added, depending on the saint popular with the family or individual or on the desire of the recorder.

It is therefore sometimes necessary to give up the idea that the father’s last name is always a certain name. Instead, you might need to note all persons with the same first name to learn the variations within the records.

Another difficulty may be met in the transition of the name of a person from when he or she was enslaved to when he or she became a free person. For example a slave named Isabel Parda could become Maria Isabel da Costa after becoming free. This can be one of the first challenges in researching the genealogy of slave families in Brazil.

Additional information on names in Brazil can be found in:

Mattos, Armando de. Manual de Genealogia Portuguesa (Manual of Portuguese Genealogy). Pôrto: Fernando Machado, 1943. (FHL book 946.9 D27ma; film 0896862 item 4)

Távora, Luiz Gonzaga de Lancastre e. Dicionário das famílias portuguesas (Dictionary of Portuguese Families). Lisboa: Quetzal Editores, 1989. (FHL book 946.9 D4t) This is a register of more than 1,000 Portuguese surnames, with a discussion of their derivations.

Wold, Lillian Ramos. Hispanic Surnames: History and Genealogy. Fullerton, Calif.: Society of Hispanic Historical and Ancestral Research, c1994. (FHL book 946 D4h)

Given Names

In Brazil many given names are derived from Biblical names such as José (Joseph), saint names such as Roque (Roch), or Old Portuguese given names such as Soromenho. Some Portuguese people used compound given names (nomes compostos) such as Maria das Dores and Isabel da Conceição. When baptized, children were usually given one or more given names. One of these might have been the name of the saint of the day of baptism. The first name or baptismal name may not have been used in the child’s life. In Brazil the child was usually called by the second or third name given at baptism; this is especially true if the first name was Maria or José.

Online Resources