Matronymic Surnames of Past and Present

Written by Amy Franz

Being that the month of May celebrates mothers, I thought it would be interesting to look at how mothers are represented in family names.

When thinking about surnames that reference lineage, they are almost always patronymic in nature, meaning they refer back to a male family member or ancestor. Fernandez (Spanish, “son of Fernando”), Jonsdottir (Icelandic, “daughter of Jon”), and bin Yousef (Arabic, “son of Yousef”) are all examples of patronyms.

But what about the mothers in these families? Have mothers had an influence on surnames throughout the times, and, if there are any cultures that pass down surnames through the mother’s lineage, which are they?

Historically, Chinese surnames were inherited through the mother’s lineage. As time progressed, this tradition changed, and by 1046 BCE family names had become patrilineal. However, a piece of history is preserved in the Chinese character for “surname” (姓), since the radical (女) means “female”. This is thought to refer to its matrilineal roots.

In the Indian state of Kerala, there are a few different ways to construct a full name. One noteworthy convention is the following format: the first initial of the mother’s given name + child’s given name + father’s given name as the surname (e.g. A. Lakshmi Chandu). If the mother’s first name is Amma, then the first initial of the full name pays homage to her.

Back in the day when wealth and land played a considerable role in identity, it was common practice for a child to receive a family name that referred to their mother if the mother was thought to be more influential or wealthier than the father. A great example of this usage is King Henry II of England. One of his by-names was Fitzempress, or “son of an Empress”, referring to his mother, Matilda, Empress of the Holy Roman Empire. Additionally with English surnames, there are a few that are in fact matronyms. Two examples are Madison and Tiffany. While Madison means “son of Matthew”, its alternate meaning is “son of Maude”. Tiffany stems from the Middle English female personal name, Tiffania.

In the case that a child was born to an unwed or widowed woman, it was expected, both in the past and present, that a child would take the mother’s last name. Nowadays, if a child uses their mother’s surname, it’s possible the reason is quite different. With a new wave of feminism, trends in naming equality are gaining momentum. Similar to the practice of a wife keeping her surname instead of adopting her partner’s, it’s not necessarily expected for a child to have their father’s last name; in some cases, albeit fairly uncommon still, some children receive their mother’s family name instead.

While patronymic surnames are the standard across many cultures, it’s interesting to reflect on how societies have incorporated the mother’s presence into the naming conventions, whether it’s a newer idea or a thing of the past.