Greek surnames are usually recognizable on sight, or upon hearing them. They all have a similar sound and/or structure to them. However, their similarity to any other European surnames ends there. For the most part, Greek surnames are difficult for foreigners to pronounce and have a complicated word structure, unlike any other European surname. Not only that, but each historical period in Greece had its own method of surname creation, assuming it was a time period when surnames were even being used.
As an example, ancient Greeks did not have official surnames like we do today. However, they did use patronymics to identify each other from their friends and neighbors who may have the same given name as them. Each man or woman would be given a patronymic meaning “son of” or “daughter of,” along with their father’s given name. When a woman married, her patronymic would change to “wife of,” with her husband’s given name. An example is Hericles Pileidis, meaning “Hericles, son of Pileas.”
The use of surnames in Greece as we use them today did not start until about the end of the 1400’s A.D. Until that time, Greeks usually simply had a first (aka given) name, usually with a patronymic added on to it. Sometimes, instead of a patronymic, the name of their clan, tribe, or village of origin was used as an unofficial surname to distinguish them from others of the same given name.
Among the upper classes, traditional surnames that were hereditary within families began to be used a little earlier than with everyone else in Greece. They were used occasionally during the Byzantine period, but remained rare, even among the upper classes, until near the end of the 800’s A.D. They became more commonplace among the elite in the 1000’s and 1100’s A.D. The elites during that time period used surnames that came from the names of places, nicknames, and occupations, rather than patronymic surnames.
Even after surnames, as we know them today, became adopted by most classes in Greece, the common people continued to use patronymics and nicknames that often changed with each generation. Until the 1800’s A.D., the use of stable, inheritable surnames was still mostly in the realm of the elite, although a few lower class families adopted their use in the Middle Ages.
In the 1800’s, when nearly every class in Greece adopted heritable surnames, patronymic surnames were the most common among all classes but the elites. With women, the use of permanent, inheritable surnames meant changing their father’s surname to the surname of her husband’s family upon marriage until very recently. In modern Greece, a woman keeps the surname of her father (or her birth surname, aka maiden name) legally for life, but may choose to also use her husband’s surname if she wishes. In fact, modern Greece does not allow a woman to completely drop her maiden name, even upon marriage.
Modern Greece also has a unique way of naming people that were not used in ancient times and is still not used in most other countries. They are officially given a first name, a patronymic name, and a heritable family surname. This is the name that is on their birth certificates.
Other than patronymic surnames, where the origin is a clear one, there are other types of surnames in Greek history and modern Greece. You may find matronymics, in which a person has a surname based on the name of their mother (though this is incredibly uncommon). There are also surnames that are based on a profession, unique abilities, animals, places of origin, and nicknames.
You can also usually tell where in Greece a person’s family originated. While these rules are not always true, they are common. So, most of the time, someone whose surname ends in “akis” has a family that came from Crete. Likewise, those with a surname ending in “ellis” usually come from Lesbos, “opolous” means they came from the Peloponnese peninsula, “idis” indicates an origin in Pontus or Asia Minor, “iadis” is from Messinia or Lanonia, and “oudas” originated with someone from Macedonia.
The beginnings of surnames are also telling. For example, a surname that begins with “Kara” usually indicates the person’s family came from eastern Greece or Asia Minor. “Kondo” means a very short person. “Papas” means “priest,” so you know the person whose surname begins with “Papa” once had a priest in their family tree, usually generations ago.
Incidentally, “Papadopoulos” is one of the most common surnames in modern Greece. Other common modern Greek surnames include Papadakis, Ioannou, Demetriou, and Georgiou.
You will also find plenty of Greek surnames reflecting physical characteristics. Those that start with Konto, Makro, and Chondro mean “short,” “tall,” and “fat.” Occupational prefixes on surnames are also common, such as Archi, which means “boss,” and Mastro, which means “craftsman.” An interesting surname prefix in Greece is Hadji, which means “pilgrimage.” A person with a surname with this prefix once had an ancestor who went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
You might even find that your Greek ancestry goes beyond Greece by the surname your Greek ancestors adopted. A Greek surname that ends in “oglou” means the first person who used it was of Turkish origin and migrated to Greece. The Greek surname “Voulgaropoulos” means “son of a Bulgarian,” so you know your Greek surname-adopting ancestor’s father came to Greece from Bulgaria. It is interesting how Greek surnames can reflect ancient migration to Greece from other areas and nations.
As you can see, your Greek surname can tell you a lot about your Greek heritage, as well as your ancient Greek ancestors. This is the type of information that is usually not found in written records, as it may pre-date them or they may have been lost or not recorded. However, a careful study of your Greek surname will reveal the origins of your Greek family in a way the records never will. Surnames are some of the best oral history records, in any country.