Why Filipino names are quirky, expressive and rich with culture and history

·4 min read
UBC professor Leonora Angeles says many Filipinos have names that were concocted to honour their parents or their place in their family lineage. (Gian Paolo Mendoza/CBC - image credit)
UBC professor Leonora Angeles says many Filipinos have names that were concocted to honour their parents or their place in their family lineage. (Gian Paolo Mendoza/CBC - image credit)

What's in a name?

For many Filipinos, that can be a complicated question to answer and one that speaks to centuries of culture and history.

Take my own name for example: My CBC byline is officially Gian-Paolo Mendoza, but most people know me as GP. It's easy to see how I got it.

But for many Filipinos, their names are often made up of other names, or they have nicknames that barely have any semblance to their legal name.

And then there's last names — many of which speak to the history of Spanish colonization of the Philippines.

WATCH | 4 Filipino Canadians break down their unique first names and nicknames:

Here are some of the common themes.

Brand new names

One of the most popular naming practices in the Philippines is combining the first few letters of each individual parent's name to form a completely new name.

"My dad's name is Jose and my mom's name is Maria," said Jomar Santos, a Filipino Canadian in Vancouver. "That's kind of how they came to name me Jomar."

Vancouverite Jenally Maranon's first name is a combination of three different relatives' names.

"So my mom's name is Jesusa, and I got the 'J-E' from her; my dad's name is Ronaldo, and I got the 'N-A' from him; and then my uncle on my dad's side … his name is Rolly, and I got the 'L-L-Y' from him," she said.

Leonora Angeles, a University of British Columbia professor and president of the National Pilipino Canadian Cultural Centre, says the concept of combining syllables to form new names honours the family lineage.

"Marital union is taken [so] seriously in the Philippines, to the point that they'd like to honour that marital union by naming the children, or one of the children, after the names of the couple who got married," said Angeles.

Nicknames

The use of nicknames is another deeply ingrained part of Filipino culture. For many Filipinos, their legal first name isn't always the one they use in their day-to-day lives.

Many go by nicknames like "Baby," commonly given to the youngest child in a family; "Jun," which is a shortened form of Junior; or "Boy," commonly given to the youngest male in a family.

"I have three cousins with the name Baby and three cousins named Boy," said Angeles.

She said those nicknames can often evolve into new forms where syllables are repeated — a common way of showing kinship and affection between Filipinos.

"From Boy, it can become Buboy, Boying, Buy-Bong or Bong-Bong," said Angeles. "The repetition of syllables in Philippine naming practices is really a sign of cuteness, as well as endearment."

Surnames under Spanish rule

When it comes to surnames, however, the history behind many of them is the opposite of cute and endearing.

Many of the surnames Filipinos have today can be traced back to one of the most influential laws in the country's colonial history: the Claveria Decree of 1849.

This law included the catálogo alfabético de apellidos: a list of 61,000 surnames from which every Filipino family had to choose under Spanish rule, mainly for tax, census and religious purposes. The majority of surnames were Hispanic.

The list made life easier for colonial administrators, Angeles said, because it was common practice in Indigenous communities to bestow different surnames upon each sibling in a family.

The document would define the names of Filipinos for generations, while leaving behind many of the country's diverse — and expressive — Indigenous surnames. The handful of those that did make it into the list were mainly from families with high societal status.

"Indigenous surnames are often identified through these abstract concepts of love or connections of reciprocity," Angeles said. "We have a lot of Philippine Indigenous names that denote feelings … or a state of mind."

For example, Angeles says the surname Maanbong means "graceful" in Visayan; and Mababang-loob means "humble" in Tagalog; or Mabanglo, which means "sweet-smelling" in both Tagalog and Pampangan.

Girly Joy Abasta/Submitted
Girly Joy Abasta/Submitted

Some Filipinos with unique names have wrestled with how and when to use them in Western contexts.

Girly Joy Abasta says she struggled with using her first name when she first moved to Canada in 2014. She would regularly go by her middle name in social and professional situations.

"When I was being introduced to Canadians who are not Filipino, they … [were] really amused by the name Girly, just because I think it was the first time that they'd met someone that was called by that name," she said.

But she believes her personality is written directly into the name her parents gave her. And, since moving back to the Philippines for work, Abasta says she has grown to embrace her first name once again.

"I'm the eldest… I guess they named me Girly Joy just because I'm a girl and I am their bundle of joy," she said.

"I think I personify the name Girly. I love my name."

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