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Understanding customs used in surnames and given names can help you identify your ancestors in records. Learn to recognize name variations and see clues in names.

Online Tools[edit | edit source]

Sometimes, deciphering a given name in an old handwritten document is not as easy as one might suppose. This could be due to the widespread use of abbreviations or to the difficulty in reading the handwriting. Use these lists of names to assist you in interpreting the names mentioned in the documents.[1]

Surnames[edit | edit source]

A Portuguese name is typically composed of one or two given names, and a number of family names (rarely one, but often two or three, sometimes more). The first additional names are usually the mother's family surname(s) and the father's family surname(s). It is not uncommon that a married woman has two given names and six surnames, two from her mother's family, two from her father's family, and the last two coming from her husband. In addition, some of these names may be made of more than one word, so that a full feminine name can have more than 12 words. For instance, the name "Maria do Carmo Mão de Ferro e Cunha de Almeida Santa Rita Santos Abreu" would not be surprising in a married woman. For practicality, usually only the last surname (excluding prepositions) is used in formal greetings. [2]

There has never been a standardized method of establishing surnames. However, there are several prevalent patterns.

  • Historically, daughters were commonly given their mother's surname, and sons were given their father's surname.
  • It was also common for children to receive both of their parents' surnames. When this combination occurred, the mother's surname would typically precede the father's surname.
  • Women tended to retain their maiden surname throughout their life.
    • In the late 19th century, the it became common for women to adopt adopting their husband's surname, but this practice faded by the end of the century.
  • From the mid 20th century onward, individuals tended to include their last (father's) surname in formal settings.[3]
  • Prepositions that can be used in Portuguese surnames are da, das, do, dos and de, such as in Maria da Cunha, José das Neves, Joana do Rosário, Luís dos Santos, Gabriela de Sousa, etc. and mean "from" or "of." Da, dos, etc. are contractions of the preposition de and a definite article (o, as, etc.), meaning "from the" or "of the." The current convention in Portuguese is that they be written in lower case.[2]

Historical Development of Surnames[edit | edit source]

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.

Surname Changes of Immigrants in the United States[edit | edit source]

As Immigrants moved into English-speaking countries, their surnames were impacted in a variety of ways.


  • Most of the time the surname spelling changed to accommodate the different phonetic spelling in the English language. In other words, the recorder tried to write the name the way he heard it.
  • Surnames may also have been translated outright into English, sometimes with a slight twist.
  • Within the community, such as the local parish, immigrants may continue to use the original name, while at the same time using English-language equivalents when dealing with local government, census takers, and other English speakers.
  • Different branches of the same family may adopt various surname spellings.
  • Prior to 1900, formal surname changes documented in local court records are relatively rare.
  • During the early 20th Century, especially the World War I era, surname changes are recorded more frequently, as immigrants or, more often, their children, tried to adopt more neutral surnames.

Given Names[edit | edit source]

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.

The Name 'Maria'[edit | edit source]

The given name Maria is extremely common as a feminine given name and even combined with masculine names. In Portugal, it has always been common. Traditionally Maria is more common as the first part of a double first name combination; these may be formed by several different elements.

  • Religious predicates (often honouring one of the Virgin Mary's denominations):

Catholic devotion festivities: Maria da Conceição (referring to Our Lady of Conception), Maria das Dores (Our Lady of Sorrows), Maria da Assunção (Assumption of Mary), Maria da Natividade (Nativity of Mary).

  • A place of a Marian apparition: Maria de Fátima (Fátima), Maria de Lurdes (Lourdes), Maria de la Salete (La Salette), Maria Aparecida (common in Brazil, after Aparecida), Maria Nazaré (Nazareth).
  • A virtue or a nature element (many of which have lost religious associations nowadays): Maria do Céu (Heaven or Sky), Maria da Luz (Light), Maria do Mar (Sea), Maria da Graça (Grace).

The name of a saint: Maria de São José (after Saint Joseph).

Other types of combinations:

  • Maria paired with a different feminine given name: Maria Madalena, Maria Teresa, Maria Antónia (or Antônia, in Brazil), Maria Gabriela, Maria Beatriz, Maria Eduarda, Maria Luíza, Maria Fernanda, Maria Alice, Maria Carolina, Maria Dulce
  • Maria paired with a masculine given name: Maria João, Maria José, Maria Manuel, Maria Luís, José Maria (which is often abbreviated as JM). It is not unusual to find masculine names such as João Maria, José Maria, Manuel Maria, Luís Maria etc. In this case, Maria would always be the second given name, in honour of the Virgin Mary, and the first name would be a masculine name. This custom was fashionable among the Portuguese nobility and the upper classes.
  • Many names that are etymologically related to Maria are also used. The most common is the name Mariana, a contraction of Maria and Ana.[2]

Children of Immigrants[edit | edit source]

In Brazil, recent immigrants – especially Italians, Germans, Jews and Japanese] – usually give their sons only the father's family surname. Although there is no legal restriction on this practice, the pattern in succeeding generations changes to the traditional Portuguese pattern, usually because of assimilation.

Today one can find people who use two Italian surnames (like "Gardi Bianchini") or two Japanese surnames (like "Sugahara Uemura"), a practice that is unusual in Italy and nonexistent in Japan. Having two surnames from different non-Portuguese origin is also not uncommon, such as the Brazilian celebrity "Sabrina Sato Rahal", a Japanese and an Arab surname, respectively. Particularly common are German-Italian combinations (Becker Bianchini, for instance), especially in Rio Grande do Sul.

The Spanish pattern is in many ways similar, but the father's surname usually precedes the mother's, unlike Portuguese usage. Almost all of the first Spanish-Brazilian born generation were named in order of the family surnames of the Portuguese pattern.[2]

São Paulo State area[edit | edit source]

A specific pattern developed among the descendants of 20th-century immigrants: they use only their father's surname and two given names, the first is a Portuguese given name and the second one is a given name from their father's original country.

This pattern is most used among Japanese and Syrian-Lebanese immigrants sons and grandsons. So one can find names like "Paulo Salim Maluf" where Paulo is a Portuguese given name, Salim is an Arabian given name, and Maluf is his father's surname; or "Maria Heiko Sugahara" where Maria is a Portuguese given name, Heiko a Japanese given name and Sugahara is her father's surname. This practice allows the person to be recognized as "Paulo Maluf" or "Maria Sugahara" (in the large Brazilian society) or as "Salim Maluf" or "Heiko Sugahara" (in the immigrant's social community).

This pattern used to be quite common in São Paulo. Intermarriage has reduced this practice, but it is commonly used when both father and mother belong to the same ethnicity. Younger generations tend to use both the father's and the mother's family name, thus giving four names to their sons (like "Paulo Salim Lutfalla Maluf" or "Maria Heiko Sugahara Uemura").[2]

For Further Reading[edit | edit source]

  • A GUIDE TO NAMES AND NAMING PRACTICES, UK Names Guide
  • Barão de Vasconcelos. Archivo nobiliarchico brasileiro (Brazilian Archive of Nobility). Available Online.
  • Mattos, Armando de. Manual de Genealogia Portuguesa (Manual of Portuguese Genealogy). Pôrto: Fernando Machado, 1943. (FHL book 946.9 D27ma; film 0896862 item 4) At various libraries (WorldCat)
  • 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. At various libraries (WorldCat)
  • Wold, Lillian Ramos. Hispanic Surnames: History and Genealogy. Fullerton, Calif.: Society of Hispanic Historical and Ancestral Research, c1994. (FHL book 946 D4h) At various libraries (WorldCat)

FamilySearch Sources[edit | edit source]

More such books are listed in the FamilySearch Catalog:

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Portuguese Documents, BYU Script Tutorial, https://script.byu.edu/Pages/the-portuguese-documents-pages/portuguese-overview, accessed 22 February 2021.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 "Portuguese names', in Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Portuguese_name, accessed 21 February 2021.
  3. Collaborators of Wikipedia, "Portuguese name," in Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Portuguese_name. Visited 23 June 2017.

Online Resources[edit | edit source]