Surely you have asked yourself more than once when shaking hands with a German or an Englishman or perhaps while watching a Hollywood movie and looking at the names of its protagonists: Why do they have a last name and we have two? Why, for example, is Bill Gates called that and not Bill Gates Maxwell, adding that of his mother? And why, if you have to fill out an official form in the US, is it likely that you will have to compress your two surnames into a single box?
In summary: Why are we the “weirdos” of genealogy? In other neighboring countries, newborns have traditionally received a single surname—that of the father, almost always. The guideline has become more flexible over the last few years, true; but often changing the dynamic requires direct parental choice. It is not something automatic, as in Spain.
The story of why we take the last name we do requires us to take a considerable leap in time, five centuries, to the time of Cardinal Cisneros. To him we owe the first attempt to establish a certain order where, until then, chaos and arbitrariness had basically reigned; that from a messy soup of names we have moved on to what we now understand as surnames.
Objective: to put a little order
Until the beginning of the 16th century, it was usual for each person to carry a first name and a genitive, a tagline almost almost like a nickname that was related to their place of origin or family and that basically served to identify them. While it is true that this made sense, it also gave rise to some circumstances that today would seem delusional and, above all, made the administration devilishly complicated. A clear example: did two brothers born in different cities have the same last name? Maybe yes. Maybe not.
To throw some order into that chaos, at the beginning of the 16th century the powerful, influential and above all methodical and orderly Cardinal Cisneros decided to take matters into his own hands: each person would receive your father’s last name. Mandatory, no options. The measure was instituted in 1501 and served as the first step so that today you share surnames with your parents and siblings.
Little by little and already in the 16th century, the use of the double surname was penetrating among the upper class of Castile, of good lineage and who were reluctant to see how one of their two family brands vanished. Over time it was penetrating among the rest of the country’s population. “The Administration realizes that it is much easier to control us with the double surname system,” Antonio Alfaro, the president of the Hispanic Genealogy Association (Hispagen), recently commented on laSexta.
In the 1830s, the double surname was already a common practice, although not yet regulated. For its adoption to begin to be institutionalized, it would take several decades, in the mid-nineteenth century, when it was included for the first time in the official registry. That it became the norm, however, required something more: it did not reach the Civil Registry of 1871. Its application via law was definitively confirmed two decades later, with the Civil Code of 1889. That text finally included in its article 114 that children have the right to both surnames, that of the father and the mother.
Was that the end of the story?
No. Years ago a legal change made it possible to break what had been the pattern for centuries and that parents could choose the order of the surnames, without the father’s appearing first by default. The modifications, in any case, they are not exclusive to Spain.
Over recent years in Italy or France, for example, steps have also been taken so that offspring can incorporate their two surnames. In France even [hay un movimiento](port mon nom), porte mon nom, so that newborns receive both automatically. There are all kinds of cases. In Sweden, in the absence of an agreement, the opposite happens: that of the mother prevails exclusively.
A gear chain that explain why today we call ourselves what we call ourselves.
And that officials don’t have to pull their hair out over name messes.
Cover image | Jacek Dylag (Unsplash)
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism