Wednesday, October 31, 2012

What's in a Name? Part 2

In the previous post, I introduced the issue of naming conventions.  In this post I discuss how information about Spanish Naming Conventions can help you better understand the names of colonial American Jews and interpret their gravestones.

First a couple of general terms:

  • First name = "given name" = nombe
  • Last name (in the United States) = "surname"  = apellido


Spanish Naming Conventions

Over Spain's history, depending on which culture controlled it, Spain switched between using surnames (apellidos) and patronymics (that is, names based on the given name of one's father or paternal ancestors). By the thirteenth century, however, surnames again dominated and had become hereditary. Surnames were sometime derived from patronymics (versions of the father’s name); yet, once they became surnames they stopped changing with every generation (they became "fossilized"). Other surnames were related to where the family was from (for example the Lucena family from Lucena, Spain), or occupations (Mercado – merchant), or plants or animals (Olivera – olive; Ovejas – sheep). When families were forced to convert to Christianity, many adopted the surnames of their Catholic godfathers, for example Henriquez, Gomez, or Rodriguez. Conversos who were related to or allied with Spanish nobility often adopted the names of those families and even their coats of arms (Malka 73-75). As a result, many of the heraldic symbols found on gravestones in the Atlantic World are shared by non-Jewish Iberian families with the same last name.

Beautiful stone Gravestone of Abraham Senior Teixeira (alias: Diego Teixeira de Mattos) (1701) in Beth Haim, Ouderkerk aan de Amstel, Netherlands with a Heraldic Symbol on it (Jewish Atlantic World Database)
Occasionally family names were fossilized with older spellings (for example, Gomes spelled with an “s” at the end, rather than a “z”). Sometimes I have spoken with people think if their family spells their last name with a final “s” rather than “z” it is conclusive proof of Jewish ancestry. However, since spelling was rarely rigid in any of the colonies during this era, many families (and even individuals) would fluctuate between a variety of spellings of the name. Some names that were transliterated into Hebrew characters show a fluctuation between “p” and “f” even when using Roman letters, as the symbol for “p” and “f” are the same in the Hebrew alphabet (פ). Likewise during this era “y” and “i” were sometimes used interchangeably in surnames. Sometimes Spanish and Portuguese names changed spelling when people moved to a country that pronounced letters differently. For example, the “H” in Spanish is silent; hence, the name “Hoheb” was sometimes spelled “Oeb” in countries in which an “h” was pronounced.

Unlike the English who traditionally only inherited surnames from their fathers, people from the Spain and her former colonies often use two surnames: the first is the father's surname (apellido paterno) and the second is the mother's (apellido materno). Thus Isaac, the son of Leah Hernandes and Moses Nunes would be Isaac Nunes Hernandes. People were traditionally addressed by their father's surname or by the combined surnames.  Hence Isaac would be Mr. Nunes or Mr. Nunes Hernandes, but never Mr. Hernandes). Or to use a more realistic example (since both parents would also have apellidos paternos and maternos), Isaac the son of Leah Henandes Castillo and Moses Nunes Levy would usually inherit the apellido paterno from each parent and hence would be Isaac Nunes Hernandes. Prior to the middle of the eighteenth century, however, individuals sometimes inherited an apellido materno, particularly in an attempt to secure an inheritance (wikipedia). Indeed, in some families children could chose their surnames from among all of their parents or grandparents. Thus, siblings might have different last names. Inheritance of apellidos was complicated by the fact that sometimes parents’ surnames were passed along as a composite in order to reinforce familial connections (Malka 74). This can make locating people in Inquisition records quite tricky.

Since sometimes one’s given name consisted of several names (Malka 74), the conjunction “y” (and) was sometimes used to separate surnames, particularly if one of the surnames might be mistaken for a first name. In contrast, the preposition “de” (or da in Portuguese) meaning “of” was sometimes used to disambiguate surnames and to indicate that the second name was toponymic (a place name). Hence the conquistador Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba name signified that he was of the Fernández clan from Córdoba (in Spain). Likewise del (a contraction of de and el meaning, "of the") was used for places: del Monte, for example, means “of the mountain.”

By the eighteenth century, however, Spaniards were also using “de” to indicate nobility (and ironically for families of conversos who used the “de,” to suggest that they had no Jewish or Moorish blood) (wikipedia). Since the of “de” was at times an affectation, one finds that the same family in the Jewish Atlantic World will sometimes precede their name with a “de” and at other times won’t. Thus, Rabbi Isaac Aboab da Fonseca was the son of David Aboab and Isabel da Fonseca ( Notice that his apellido paterno precedes his apellido materno (even though he is Portuguese--more on this in the next post). The “da” before Fonseca is toponymic: Fonseca is a place in Portugal. Da Fonseca was also the name, however, of a noble family, and the name was probably adopted by Jews upon conversion ( Some members of the Fonseca family in the Atlantic World chose to drop the “de” while others maintained it.

In Iberia and the Spanish and Portuguese colonies, a woman retained her surnames when she married. Different versions of this custom were maintained by Sephardic Jews in the colonies: for example in Curaçao, women often used their apellido paterno as a middle name and took their husband's name as a last name. In Newport, children only inherited their father's last name(s) and women took their husband's last name(s) upon marriage.

Here is a concrete example: Hannah Rodrigues Pimentel (1720-1820) was born on the island of Minorca and moved to Curaçao before she was married. She was the daughter of Samuel Rodrigues Pimentel and Sarah Lopez. If she had stayed in Minorca, her name would most likely have been Hannah Rodrigues Lopez. She married Abraham Sasportas in 1735 and kept her name according to both Spanish and Dutch convention. Their daughter was named Simha Sasportas, though if the daughter had been born in Spain, she would have been named Simha Sasportas Rodrigues. Simha died young and hence never married. After her Hannah's first husband died, she married Jacob Rodriguez Rivera in Curaçao in 1741. Her children from the second marriage took the last name Rodriguez Rivera until they married, at which point her daughters took their husband's last names. (For example, her daughter Sarah who married Aaron Lopez became "Sarah Lopez.")  When Hannah was buried, her gravestone was marked "Hannah Rodriguez Rivera." That is, after immigrating to the English colonies, Hannah and her children adapted to local custom and used English naming conventions.

In the Next Post in this series, I will discuss how Portuguese and Spanish Naming Conventions Differ. 

References and Resources


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