Portuguese Naming Traditions and How They Affect Us

Last Edited: 20 May 2020

In our research of the Azorean 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 last name have been Afonso or even Gonçalves? Could there have been a discrepancy in the recording of Balthazar Afonso's last name?

Records show that Balthazar and Brianda's known children, Violante and Belchior, took on the last name Cordeira and Cordeiro respectively. Whilst we do not have any information about Brianda's father, there is a likelihood he was a Cordeiro; and whilst we have no definitive answer as to why two of Brianda's children took on the Cordeiro last name, the history of Portuguese naming customs does tell us that a mother's last name 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 last names, it is important to clear our minds of current day naming conventions and to understand how last names were chosen in the time our Azorean 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 last name for him or herself. This last name 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 last name, whilst girls could pick the feminine version of their father's last name or their mother's last name. 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 last name was taken as a family member/good friend did not have any heirs and taking their last name would allow that particular family name to continue.

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

Through their lives, an individual could also use other last names for whatever reason as is evidenced by the fact that the wife of an ancestor, Theodora da Trindade changed her name to Theodora do Espirito Santo. Also, women did not take on their husband's last name at marriage but continued to use their maiden name or some other last name of their choice. 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 last names, it was decided that their mother's last name 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 last names (much like the hyphenated last names used today), a practice that is far more common than uncommon. The Cordeiros are from this category of double last name users - Gonçalves Cordeiro. From the sequence of names, it would suggest the possibility that our first last name was previously Gonçalves. Note that Gonçalves is a patronymic last name derived from the masculine name, Gonçalo. Gonçalves would have been used to denote an individual as the "son of Goncalo". Could Balthazar Afonso have had another last name - Gonçalves - which was not shown in the records we found? Did his father or mother have the last name Gonçalves and therefore the reason for the use of this name?

A second last name is sometimes added to distinguish a specific family from other unrelated families in the village if the last name is common. It may also be added to indicate family lines of both parents in a similar way that it is used today. Whilst Gonçalves was a common last name, we can only speculate on the reasons for the combination of the two last names.

We have observed a number of instances where there is a complete absence of the Cordeiro last name 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 last name use and recording continued for other family members down a number of generations.

The use of the Gonçalves last name was dropped after our ancestor Antonio Gonçalves Cordeiro migrated from the Azores to Macau in the mid-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 Macau do not comprise the double last names as used by our Azorean ancestors but are in fact true middle names as is customarily used today.