The Transition to Modern Greek names

After the collapse of the Roman Empire, the ‘Greek’ world survived in the East, in the Byzantine Empire. There began a period of transition in nomenclature. Biblical names and those with pious meaning, which marked the ascendancy of Christian values, remained in use, but names of new rulers, such as Basileios, Leon, Alexios also enjoyed a vogue. By the thirteenth century, however, the personal names Ioannes, Georgios, Demetrios and Maria had established their lasting ascendancy. By that time, too, it was usual for monks to adopt a new name on entering the monastic life, and a class of names developed which was reserved for them e.g. Gerasimos, Isaias, Iakobos, Makarios, though some continued to bear pagan names such as Dionysios, and even Hermes and Alcibiades.

As elsewhere in Europe, hereditary family or surnames names (επωνυμα) developed sporadically from about 1000AD, at first mainly among ruling families, whose family names were often derived from locations, towns and monasteries. The widespread use of surnames by Greeks dates only from the War of Independence (c. 1832). Many Greek surnames take a patronymic form, with the terminations -opoulos or -ides (for example, Konstantinopoulos, Apostolides), or are derived from trades (Metaxas, ‘silk weaver’, Petalas, ‘blacksmith’), or physical characteristic (Kephalas, ‘head’). It is primarily in surnames that distinct local variations are to be found, reflecting past history, often occupation by foreign powers. Italian, especially Venetian, occupation left its mark in both personal names and surnames in Crete, the Ionian Islands and the Cyclades. Many surnames in Kephalonia, for example, have the termination -atos (Marinatos, Laskaratos), the Italian -ato. Surnames in -oglou, reflecting the Turkish ‘son of’ and equivalent to Greek -opoulos, are particularly common among Greeks from the Pontic area of Asia Minor. 

The historian Ant. Meliarakis, in his book on the political geography of Kephallenia, Γεογραφια Πολιτικη νεα και αρχαια του Κεφαλληνιας (1890) recorded the surnames attested at that time on Kephallonia.

The two main influences in modern Greek personal names are Christianity and Antiquity. Examples of the former are Ioannes/Yannis, Demetrios/Dimitri, Nicholas/Niko, Spiridon/Spiros, Konstantinos/Kostas for men, Eleni, Anna, Maria, Demetra, Konstantina for women, and of the latter, Aristoteles, Sokrates, Xenophon, Demosthenes, Miltiades, which were never forgotten but were more widely bestowed from the eighteenth century onwards. Both male and female names are often familiarized by the addition of a hypocoristic termination such as -akis, -oula or -ita, for example Petrakis from Petros, Nitsa from Eleni.

 

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