Portuguese Naming Traditions and How They Affect Us

Last Edited: 28 Aug 2020

In our research of the Açoreano birth records, we stumbled across a questionable find - the father of Belchoir Gonçalves Cordeiro was a Balthazar Afonso and his mother, Brianda Cordeira (feminine of Cordeiro)! Should our surname have been Afonso or even Gonçalves? Could there have been a discrepancy in the recording of Balthazar Afonso's surname?

Records show that Balthazar and Brianda's known children, Violante and Belchior, took on the surname Cordeira and Cordeiro respectively. The history of Portuguese naming customs tell us that a mother's surname is often used if it is from a more "prestigious" line or if the children wish to for whatever reason, continue using the mother's family name.

To understand this somewhat confusing use of surnames, it is important to clear our minds of current day naming conventions and to understand how surnames were chosen in the time our Açoreano ancestors lived. At birth, children were only ever baptised with a first name, never a last. It is only sometime during their adolescent years that the parent or the child selects a surname for him or herself. This surname could be literally anything, though in nearly all instances, there is usually a good reason for the name selected. Boys tended to (but not solely) pick their father's surname, while girls could pick the feminine version of their father's surname or their mother's surname. Children could also select their maternal or paternal grand-parents name; a god-parent's name; a religious or devotional name (eg. do Espirito Santo meaning Of The Holy Spirit or da Trindade meaning Of the Trinity) or the name of the admired neighbour up the street. Sometimes, a surname was taken as a family member/good friend did not have any heirs and taking their surname would allow that particular family name to continue. In the early records of our Cordeiro ancestors, the nobility of the family played an important role in surname selection. The Cordeiro surname was tied to wealth, prestige and other important founding settlers on the islands.

This "loose" method of surname selection is seen in the families of Balthazar Gonçalves Cordeiro and Manoel Goncalves Cordeiro (b. 1626) where sons and daughters have different surnames.

Through their lives, an individual could also use other surnames for whatever reason as is evidenced by the fact that the wife of an ancestor, Theodora da Trindade also used the name Theodora do Espírito Santo. Also, women did not take on their husband's surname at marriage but continued to use their chosen surname. These naming traditions baffle many that are accustomed to modern day naming practices, and were common until the 1920s in Portugal.

Hence, when Brianda Cordeira's children chose their surnames, it was decided that their mother's surname would be used, thereby allowing the Cordeiro name to continue to this day.

In addition to the above, there was also the use of double surnames (much like the hyphenated surnames used today), a practice that is far more common than uncommon. The Cordeiros are from this category of double surname users - Gonçalves Cordeiro. This combination of surnames is usually a result of combining the surnames from both parents. From our research, we believe that Brianda's father was a Goncalves while her mother carried the surname Cordeira/o.

A second surname is sometimes added to distinguish a specific family from other unrelated families in the village if the surname is common. It may also be added to indicate family lines of both parents in a similar way that it is used today. The latter is the case with our ancestors.

We have observed a number of instances where there is a complete absence of the Cordeiro surname in the records, with only the Gonçalves name used. Brianda's son Belchior, would at times be recorded as Belchior Gonçalves and at other times, Belchior Gonçalves Cordeiro. Whilst this "inconsistency" in recording was very common, it does suggest that he was known by both versions. This similar form of surname use and recording continued for other family members down a number of generations. It also suggests that Brianda could have also carried the Gonçalves surname that we are unaware of.

The use of the Gonçalves surname was dropped after our ancestor Antonio Gonçalves Cordeiro migrated from the Açores to Mação in the late-1700s. This name is never seen again in any descendants for whom we have records. We also believe that the names of our ancestors from Mação do not comprise the double surnames as used by our Açoreano ancestors but are in fact true middle names as is customarily used today.