Memo From Mexico | What's In A (Sur)Name? Plenty, If You're Planning An Amnesty

A number of years back, before I was up to speed on the National Question, I read an article dealing with registration problems in the U.S. Social Security system.

It reported that one of the problems in keeping individual's names straight was the difference between the surname systems of various cultures. The problem, according to a bellyacher quoted in the article, was that our Social Security database was set up in "an Anglo format", with a system of surnames, with a surname being defined as a family name passed from generation to generation. [Name Error Can Cost You Money—Report: Social Security May Not Compute Non-Anglo Names, By Ralph Vartabedian, Los Angeles Times, December 23, 1996] [VDARE.COM note: There's some gloating about this from Linda Chavez's Center For Equal Opportunity here—they looked on this confusion as one of the many factors that make interior enforcement  "impossible".]

To the bellyacher, the fact that the database was in an "Anglo format" was a bad thing. His assumption, conscious or unconscious, was that the United States has no culture of its own. Therefore it ought to be open to—and accommodate—any other name registration system, of any culture in the world.

There's an astonishing amount of variety in naming systems. It's not just that the names are different, deriving as they do from different languages and etymologies. The various systems used to order the surnames are quite different—even incompatible. A headache for record-keepers—and an advantage to those who wish to conceal their identities!

Some cultures don't even use surnames—for example, in Iceland, the sparsely inhabited nation-state in the North Atlantic. Instead, Icelanders use a system of patronymics (and sometimes matronymics) which by definition change every generation.

In English we call a surname a "last name". But that's just because in English the family name comes last. In some cultures (including the Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese and Hungarian) the family name precedes the given name.

Now let's pose a (maybe not so) hypothetical question:

Suppose our next president (probably Obama or McCain) joins together with a Democratic Congress to enact a major amnesty, which results in the "regularization" of millions of "undocumented" aliens. What kind of background checks do you suppose these multitudes will be subjected to…if any?

And given the grand variety of naming systems, and transliterations systems, will we ever get it right? Will we ever figure out who all these people really are?

What about Arabic names? The Arabic alphabet is precisely designed for the Arabic language. But it's utterly incompatible with the Latin alphabet with which we write English, because many of the sounds don't match up.

That's why Arabic-English transliteration (the conversion of words from one writing system to another) is an inexact science. For example, the same individual's name might be transliterated Osama or Usama. And how do you write the name of the erstwhile dictator of Libya? Is it Muammar Quaddafi, Mo'ammar Gadhafi, Muammar Kaddafi, or one of 29 other forms ways in which it's been transliterated. ( Click here for 32 ways in which you can write the name of dictator of Libya).

When I was studying some Arabic (in conjunction with my Iraq deployment) I noticed the same Arabic word transliterated two different ways in the same Arabic-English book!

As T.E. Lawrence ("Lawrence of Arabia) himself explained:

"Arabic names won't go into English, exactly, for their consonants are not the same as ours, and their vowels, like ours, vary from district to district. There are some 'scientific systems' of transliteration, helpful to people who know enough Arabic not to need helping, but a wash-out for the world. I spell my names anyhow, to show what rot the systems are."

Not only do you have the transliteration problem, but the Arabic naming system is a highly complex chain of names which is confusing to non-Arabs.

The ism is what we'd call the given name, such as Ahmad or Latif.

The nasab is a patronymic, for example, ibn 'Umar (Son of Omar) or bint Abbas (daughter of Abbas).

A laqab is an adjective describing the person (al-Rashid, the righteous).  

The nisba describes a man's occupation (al-Hallaj the dresser of cotton), his tribe, (al-Ju'fi). or place of birth or residence. The designation al-Tikriti was attached to Saddam Hussein's name because he hailed from the city of Tikrit).

Then there's a kunya, abu (father of ____ ) or umm (mother of _____).

When I was in Iraq, I even had a kunya. I worked on a fence construction detail with some local Iraqis who called me Abu Daud, "father of David", because my firstborn son is named David (Daud in Arabic).

A kunya can also be metaphorical, describing an abstract quality, or a man's cause or lifestyle. Khalil al-Wazir, the Palestinian Arab founder of Fatah, was known as Abu Jihad.

These Arabic name-forms may be strung together in a chain:

Abu Karim Muhammad al-Jamil ibn Nidal ibn Abdulaziz al-Filistin (father-of-Karim, Muhammad, the beautiful, son of Nidal, son of Abdulaziz, the Palestinian). Or, smaller elements of the chain may be used in different contexts.

Given the complexity and flexibility of Arabic names, what do you suppose will happen in the future, possibly after some big blow-up in the Middle East, when there is the inevitable rapid and massive influx of Arabic-speaking refugees into our country? How closely do you think they will be investigated? How much time will our authorities spend to find out who all these people are?

And will Muslim pressure groups in the U.S. even allow such investigation?

The traditional American surname system, upon which our record-keeping is based, didn't come out of nowhere, and it's not a neutral system. It came from England, where surnames were developed in the Middle Ages. Even today, English surnames are considered America's most typical, and the most despised by the multiculturalists.

Some English surnames are patronymics, such as Johnson (son of John) and Pearson (son of Piers) which is one of my ancestral names. Others are based upon occupations, such as Taylor, Miller, Carpenter, Shoemaker, Jester and Cooper (barrel-maker).

The surname Smith, referring to a metal-worker, derives etymologically from the Old English "smitan", to smite, as the metal-worker had to strike the metal.

Smith is still the most common surname in the U.S., England, Scotland, and Australia. But according to a recent report, the Chinese surname Li has surpassed Smith as the most common surname in Canada!

Other English surnames are based on personal characteristics of the founder of the lineage, such as Short, Swift, Long, Savage, Stern and Small. Some refer to skin complexion, such as a couple of my ancestral surnames, White and Brown. Some medieval forebears were named for animals: Wolf, Duck, Bird, Lamb, Kidd. I once attended a Republican precinct meeting which held an election pitting a Mr. Bird against a Mr. Duck. That elicited a few laughs. Some surnames are locational, named after a city or shire (London, Manchester, Lincoln), or a geographical feature: Hill, Ridge, Bush, Stroud (marshy ground), Timberlake, Ramsey (Garlic Island). My own surname Wall refers to a "dweller at, or near a wall".

By 1400 all the families in England had a surname. Birth registration (by surname of the father) was regularized by Henry VIII (reigned 1509-1547). Under the English system, the wife changes her name to that of her husband, and the children bear the father's surname.

Our country was founded by the English, beginning in 1607 (after a false start with Virginia Dare and the Lost Colony!). So we inherited that system, and it still exists to this day.  Certainly, recent years have seen the use of hyphenated surnames, and women who keep their maiden name. But these are still minority practices. Even Hillary went back to her married name when she ran for President.

While surnames were developing in England, similar processes were at work in Spain.

The most common Spanish surnames are patronymics, such as Rodríguez (son of Rodrigo), López (son of Lope) Hernández son of Hernando, Martínez (son of Martín) and so forth.

As in English, some Spanish surnames are locational—Madrid, Toledo, Ríos (rivers); occupational—Carpintero (carpenter), Guerrero (warrior), Zapatero (shoemaker) and Herrera (smith). Some describe physical characteristics: Moreno (brunette), Rubio (ruddy), Delgado (slim), and Obeso (obese). As in English there are animal surnames—Lobo (wolf), Cordero (lamb), Vaca (cow) Toro (bull) and Becerro, Becerra (calf). Spanish orphans raised in the church were given such surnames as Iglesia(s) (church(es) and Cruz (cross).

The Basque inhabitants of northern Spain spoke a language unrelated to any known tongue in the world, and they developed their own surnames. Some are rather common, such as Treviño and Echeverría. But some are real jawbreakers, such as Azcárraga, Bengoechea, Goikoetxe, Bastarretxea, Lizarzaburu, Pagadigorria, and Arrigorriagakoa, which means "the one of the place of the red stones". But they are still part of the Spanish surname system. My Mexican wife has Basque ancestry on both sides of her family, and both her surnames are Basque.

After the Spaniards conquered various Indian groups and built the nation-state we now know as Mexico, most Indians eventually adopted Spanish surnames, but not all. A relatively small percentage of Mexicans bear surnames deriving from indigenous languages. Examples include Moctezuma (from Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs and related peoples) and Chan, from Mayan. Such names were assimilated into the Spanish surname system, along with names of non-Spanish immigrants to Mexico and other Latin American countries.

Spanish family names are organized into a dual surname system which often confuses English-speakers. In fact, there are professional journalists who make a lot more money than your typical VDARE.COM writer, and who write about Latin America, who don't even understand it. The dual surname system is utilized in Spain, Mexico and all Spanish-speaking countries with the exception of Argentina, and even there they are trying to revive it.

In Spanish-speaking countries, the wife does not take her husband's surname. She may use it socially, but on the official register she will always be listed by her own surnames, not her husbands'.

Let's suppose Carlos López marries Fernanda García. and they have a few kids. In Mexico, the first son is almost invariably named after the father, so let's talk about the second son, Pedro.

Pedro's official name will be Pedro López García. López is his apellido paterno, equivalent to the English surname. García is his apellido materno, which is what we could call his mother's maiden name, but it has official validity in Spanish speaking countries. Another way to look at it is that the individual bears the surnames of both his grandfathers.

Even I, an American living (legally) in Mexico, am now part of the Spanish Dual Surname System. In the U.S. Anglo-American naming system, my official name is Allan Ephraim Wall. My mother's maiden name was Dunlavy. So here in Mexico, which follows the Spanish Dual Surname System, my official name is: 

Allan Ephraim Wall Dunlavy.

In practice, how do two surnames function? Let's return to our hypothetical Pedro example. Say his complete name is Pedro Antonio López García, the first two names being his given names, the last two names his surnames.

This individual might be called Pedro Antonio López García, or Pedro Antonio López, or Pedro López. In certain contexts he might be called López or López García. Or he might be referred to in print as Pedro López G. or by the initials PALG or PAL. (Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, leftwing presidential candidate in the last Mexican election, was frequently referred to by his initials AMLO.)

However, you would not normally call Pedro López García by his apellido materno alone, so don't call him Pedro García. That's a mistake made sometimes by English language news reports. I saw Edgar Millan Gómez, the Mexican police official slain by narco agents, referred to in an English-language article as Gómez, but he should be referred to as Millan or Millan Gómez.

And you need to be careful. In some contexts, calling a man by his apellido materno alone implies that he is a bastard!

I once had a student call me by my apellido materno. Looking back, I now think it was meant as an insult. But it was my first year in Mexico and I was too naïve to notice.

However, there are plenty of exceptions to the aforementioned rule! Some people, including artists and actors, are referred to by the apellido materno with no insult intended, often because their apellido paterno is so common. One notable example is the Spanish painter Picasso, whose surnames were Ruiz y Picasso (sometimes the y meaning "and" is inserted between surnames). Other examples include the Mexican artists Siqueiros (really David Alfaro Siqueiros) and Orozco (really José Clemente Orozco), and the current Spanish Prime Minister Rodríguez Zapatero, known commonly as Zapatero.

For some Spanish-speakers, even two surnames are not enough. Although only two are official registered, some individuals have written four, eight, even sixteen surnames. There's even a system for that, an exact order to write all those surnames: father's, mother's, paternal grandmother's, maternal grandmother's, etc.

The alphabetization of dual surnames in a class roll or a telephone book is also governed by rules. The list is alphabetized by the apellido paterno, with the apellido materno as a tiebreaker. López Garza would precede López González. But if there are two individuals with the surnames López Garza, the first given name would determine precedent. So López Garza Jorge would precede López Garza Mario. Got it?

As a teacher, that's the kind of list I deal with in the school. However, I have had students in my class who were alienated from their fathers and therefore did not write their apellido paternos on their tests and homework, they just wrote their given name and apellido materno. It can be a headache for the teacher.

Traditionally, when Hispanics migrated to the U.S. they adopted the Anglo-American surname system—the wife takes the husband's name, and the kids have just one official surname. In some Mexican-American families, they use the wife's maiden name as a middle name for the children in a similar fashion to some American presidents such as John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Richard Milhous Nixon. In more recent years though, some immigrants have begun to make hyphenated surnames out of their family names.

There is plenty of potential for confusion.

Let's suppose a hypothetical Mexican by the name of Arturo Delgado Rodríguez is in the U.S. and gets picked up the police. Let's suppose he is bearing his correct identity documents (by no means a foregone conclusion). If the police see his Mexican ID which utilizes the dual surname system, they may not understand it. They may register his name under Rodríguez and not Delgado, as would be the correct manner in a Spanish-speaking country.

Let's assume he gets picked up again and this time has a U.S. ID which lists his name as Arturo Delgado. Since they can't find him listed for the previous arrest, this would be considered his first offense, when it's really his second.

And if Arturo gets picked up a third time, well, who knows what kind of ID he has then and how it gets interpreted?

Such confusion and obfuscation is by no means limited to police matters, but could apply to any sort of legal or commercial registration of names.

In fact, I myself have encountered a similar situation. On one of my visits to the U.S., I signed up for a teacher's discount card at a bookstore. In order to prove I was a teacher, I produced my Mexican teacher's ID, which had my name listed, Spanish-style, as Allan Wall Dunlavy. So that's what they put on my discount card and in their computer database, assuming that Dunlavy was my surname in the Anglo-American "last name" sense.

On a later visit, I went to the store and had a little trouble establishing my identity. After all, my Mexican ID says Allan Wall Dunlavy, my U.S. ID says Allan Wall, and my bookstore discount has my "last name" as Dunlavy.

Well, I explained the confusion and got my card changed to one compatible with the Anglo-American surname system. But this is only a small foretaste of what could happen should a President Obama or President McCain succeed in enacting a huge amnesty. In a short time, the government would attempt to legalize millions of Hispanic illegal aliens, from various countries, utilizing a dual surname system that most Americans, including many journalists and bureaucrats, don't even understand.

How many drug traffickers, gang members and other assorted felons will sail through the legalization process?

So how will we verify the identities of all these people, and how will we investigate their backgrounds?

Or will we even try?

American citizen Allan Wall ( email him) resides in Mexico, with a legal permit issued him by the Mexican government. Allan recently returned from a tour of duty in Iraq with the Texas Army National Guard. His VDARE.COM articles are archived here; his FRONTPAGEMAG.COM articles are archived here his "Dispatches from Iraq" are archived here his website is here.