A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

In Spanish surnames, why is the 2nd-to-last surname the "real" name?

January 13, 1984

Dear Cecil:

There seems to be a convention in Spanish-speaking countries that most newspapers in the United States follow but never explain. This is the use of a man's second-to-last name as the name he is usually referred to by: for example, the president of Mexico, Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado, is called President de la Madrid; the late premier of Chile, Salvador Allende Gossens, is referred to as Premier Allende. Is this last name his wife's name perhaps? If not, what is it? If it is, why isn't it hyphenated? This may very well be something they teach you in Spanish 101, but there didn't seem to be any place I could easily look it up.

Cecil replies:

Obviously, Randy, you're unfamiliar with The Chicago Manual of Style, which is chock-full of meaningless trivia like this. From the manual we learn that the second-to-last name in most Spanish personal names is the father's name (apellido paterno), and the last name is the mother's maiden name (apellido materno). Thus Jose and Maria, whose father is Pedro Santiago Lopez and whose mother before she was married was Luisa Rodriguez Castillo, would be Jose Santiago Rodriguez and Maria Santiago Rodriguez. Male chauvinism being a long-standing tradition in Spanish-speaking countries as elsewhere, the two would be Senor Santiago and Senorita Santiago on second reference. Furthermore, according to the manual, "a woman keeps her maiden name after marriage but drops her mother's family name and replaces it with de plus her husband's family name" (you're writing this down, right?). Thus Jose and Maria's mom is known as Luisa Rodriguez de Santiago.

The Spanish equivalent of the hyphen you occasionally see in English last name (e.g., Olivia Newton-John) is the Spanish y ("and"), as in Jose Ortega y Gasset. This system results in occasional oddities. One of my distinguished journalist colleagues, for instance, has a friend with the enchanting name Evangelina Rocha y Wodehouse, said friend having had a Mexican father and an English mother. Persons who think this practice demonstrates an uncharacteristically liberated point of view (you know, wife's name getting equal billing and all) should keep in mind that a woman's maiden name is really her father's last name. In one sense, then, the use of dual last names simply signifies the union of two male lineages.

While we're on the subject of naming peculiarities, we might also make mention of our friends the Vietnamese. As you may know, the usual practice with Oriental names is to put the family name first, followed by the given name. The Vietnamese do it that way, too; trouble is, Vietnam, in addition to its other privations, suffers from an acute lack of variety in family names, with half the people in the country having "Nguyen" stuck somewhere in their monikers. (I exaggerate, but not much.) Thus it has become common and correct to refer to a Vietnamese by his or her given name: Nguyen Van Thieu, President Thieu. A little tardy to find this out, I suppose, but better late than never.

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