How Filipinos got their surnames | Inquirer Opinion
Looking Back

How Filipinos got their surnames

/ 04:30 AM February 28, 2020

Narciso Claveria y Zaldua is a name that will not ring a bell except for Filipino historians, or perhaps some people in Cagayan, Masbate, and Misamis Oriental who live in towns named Claveria, in honor of a Spanish governor general who served from 1844-1849.

For personally leading a successful campaign in Samal against pirates that terrorized the island of Balanguigui in February 1848, Claveria was decorated with the Grand Cross of the Royal and Military Order of San Fernando, and conferred the hereditary title “Conde de Manila.”


Claveria came to mind last Wednesday as Catholics began the 40 days of Lent in the shadow of the coronavirus.

Claveria may not be as familiar as Legazpi, Dasmariñas, Taft, or Forbes, but two of his acts can still be felt in our time. The first had something to do with the resetting of time and the Philippine calendar. When Ferdinand Magellan sailed from Sevilla to the Moluccas in 1519, he did not know that he had crossed what we know today as the International Date Line. On July 9, 1522, Magellan’s chronicler Antonio Pigafetta spoke to men who had gone to get provisions and wrote:


“And we charged our men in the boat that, when they were ashore, they should ask what day it was. They were answered that to the Portuguese it was Thursday, at which they were much amazed, for to us it was Wednesday, and we knew not how we had fallen into error. For every day I, being always in health, had written down each day without any intermission. But, as we were told since, there had been no mistake, for we had always made our voyage westward and had returned to the same place of departure as the sun, wherefore the long voyage had brought the gain of twenty-four hours, as is clearly seen.”

To cut a long story short, “Magellan’s lost day” was “corrected” by Narciso Claveria who, with the agreement of the archbishop of Manila, decreed that Monday, Dec. 30, 1844, would be followed by Wednesday, Jan. 1, 1845. So Tuesday, Dec. 31, 1844, disappeared, putting the Philippines in sync with the rest of the region long before the Prime Meridian or Greenwich Mean Time was instituted in 1851. The reckoning of time, calendars, and days of the week in the Philippines was based on sunrise, sunset, the phases of the moon, and the annual setting of the date for Easter.

On Nov. 29, 1849, Claveria also issued a decree on the adoption of surnames. Since there was no system for surnames, with too many newly converted indios taking De Jesus, De la Cruz, De los Santos, or Del Rosario, it led to a lot of confusion that impeded efficient census-taking and tax collection. Claveria provided 61,000 options in a Catalogo alfabetico de apellidos (Alphabetical catalogue of surnames). Thus, some very ethnic-looking people today have Spanish surnames like Gonzalez, Gutierrez, Enriquez, or Romualdez, while some mestizo or Chinese-looking Pinoys go by names of pre-Spanish nobility like Gatbonton, Gatchalian, Gatdula or Gatmaitan, or names with traits of pre-Spanish warriors: Macaspac (destroyer), Macatunaw (a person who can melt metal), Macatangay (a person who can grab or capture), Macapagal (tireless) or the self-explanatory Catacutan, referring to someone who was to be feared.

Some Philippine terms that found their way into Claveria’s catalogue and were given out as surnames to those who were late or had no choice include: Baboy (pig), Onggoy (monkey), Dilangbutiqui (lizard tongue), Bayag (testicles), Puqui (vagina) and Bayot (homosexual). It has to be noted here that the Spanish surname Gago has a different meaning in the Philippines.

But another glance at the list revealed our religious side. Claveria’s list had surnames that are actually titles of the Virgin Mary: Del Rosario (Virgin of the Rosary), Paz or De la Paz (Virgen de la Paz y de Buenviaje, the Virgin of Peace and Good Voyage venerated in Antipolo), Concepcion (Immaculate Conception), Asuncion (Assumption), Natividad (Christmas), Salvacion (Salvation), Del Carmen (Our Lady of Mt. Carmel), and De la Peña (Nuestra Señora de la Peña de Francia). Bautista is from San Juan Bautista or John the Baptist, who is different from Evangelista, who is San Juan Evangelista or St. John the Evangelist. Apostol can be any of the Apostles, while De los Reyes is a reference to the Three Kings in the Christmas Story. Meanwhile, De los Santos is rather morbid as it reminds us of the Feast of All Saints, when Filipinos troop to cemeteries on Nov. 1.

Our surnames reflect more history than we choose to admit.


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