Greek surnames: suffixes and places of origin

During a recent visit to Crete, a local student told me that last name suffixes in Greek often reflected a person’s ancestral origin. For example, the diminutive “-akis” (-άκης) was common for Cretans, the patronymic “-opoulos” (-όπουλος) for those from the Peloponnese, “-as” (-ᾶς) from Epirus and Macedonia, and the patronymic “-oglou” (-όγλου) for those originally from Anatolia.*

Distribution of the Mitsotakis surname, using a website that visualizes the frequency of phone number registrations with given surnames. Outside of Athens (the big red cluster in Attica), the surname is relatively common in Crete.

For some specific examples:

  1. The current prime minister of Greece (as of May 2022), Kyriakos Mitsotakis, was born in Athens. However, his father (and former PM), Konstantinos Mitsotakis, was born in Chania, Crete.
  2. The former PM, Alexis Tsipras, was also born in Athens; however, his father hailed from Epirus.
  3. The dictator and Nazi collaborator, Georgios Papadopoulos, was born in a small village in the Peloponnese.
  4. Nikitaras Stamatelopoulos, a revolutionary in the Greek War of Independence, was similarly born in the Peloponnese. Even today, the last name Stamatelopoulos is most commonly found in the Peloponnese.
Distribution of the Stamatelopoulos surname, as gleaned from phone number registrations. Note the numerous clusters across the Peloponnese.

However, the correspondence between surname and place is far from perfect, even long before today’s globalized and hypermobile world. Before the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-1922, some 2 million Greeks lived in modern-day Turkey. During the aftermath of the war, Greek and Turkey agreed to a “compulsory exchange” of populations, in which over a million surviving Greek Orthodox from Asia Minor and almost half a million Muslims from Greece were forcibly denaturalized and moved. The map below captures the most common surnames of Greek Orthodox refugees from this exchange. It clearly shows that Papadopoulos (yellow) was a very common name throughout the Greek-speaking world, far beyond what the “-opoulos” (Peloponnese) would suggest. However, were still a fair number of last names more typical of Asia Minor, such as Panagiotoglou, Terezoglou, and Papazoglou.

Map of the most common surnames by region of refugees from the Greek-Turkish population exchange of 1923. Yellow = Papadopoulos, Red = Ioannidis, Orange = Panagiotoglou, Pink= Terzoglou, Purple = Kypraios, Grey = Hartomantzoglou, Green = Karagiannis, Brown = Papazoglou, Blue = Kazakis. Credit: Alex Sakalis

Although some descendants of the population exchange have kept these more “Turkish” surnames, many others have opted to Hellenise their surnames using the Ancient Greek patronymic “-ides”. For those displaced from Greece to Turkey, even fewer traces remain of ancestral surname suffixes. The Surname Law of 1934 required all Turkish citizens to adopt a Turkish surname. Thus, those with Greek-sounding surnames had to change to more Turkish suffixes such as “-zade”, “oglu”, or “gil.”

*patronymic means a “name derived from that of a father or paternal ancestor, usually by the addition of a suffix or prefix meaning ‘son'”. Familiar examples include Fitzgerald (Fitz [Norman] = fils [modern French] = son of Gerald), MacDonald (son of Donald), and Peterson.


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