What’s in a name? How family surnames and nicknames are intertwined in Gozo

January 24, 2020

If you are a Gozitan and want to introduce yourself to an elderly Gozitan person, they will ask you for your surname and your family’s nickname (laqam). Traditionally, this was a way of instant recognition and, along with subtle hints in the dialect you use, they would be able to instantly deduce quite a number of things about you, such as the locality where you live, who are other members of your family, and other traits (good or bad) traditionally associated with your family.

Of course, this method of recognition isn’t quite as accurate as it once was, however, one must keep in mind that up until a handful of decades ago, Gozo still existed as a highly agrarian society. Electricity, for instance, was only introduced to Gozo in the mid-1920’s, at which time it was limited just to parts of Victoria and switched on only after dusk for lighting. Electricity only started to be rolled out into towns and villages in the mid to late 1950’s.

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As one can imagine, families relied heavily on each other, lived close to each other and formed tightly knit communities that supported each other. This led to the development of highly distinct identities within Gozo’s 14 towns and villages. Hence why surnames and family nicknames used to be such a strong method of identification.

Whilst things are a little different in today’s day and age, just six surnames make up almost a quarter of all surnames on the island, whilst the top 22 surnames constitute over 60% of Gozo’s population.

Here are the top 22:

  1. Vella
  2. Attard
  3. Camilleri
  4. Grech
  5. Portelli
  6. Buttigieg
  7. Sultana
  8. Azzopardi     
  9. Spiteri
  10. Zammit
  11. Grima
  12. Galea
  13. Muscat
  14. Borg
  15. Mercieca
  16. Farrugia
  17. Xuereb
  18. Cassar
  19. Xerri
  20. Saliba
  21. Cauchi
  22. Said

There are also some very location-specific surnames which were traditionally associated with certain towns or villages in Gozo and this trend can still somewhat be seen today. For instance, Xuereb & Zerafa are predominant in Għajnsielem, Mintoff in Għasri, Curmi & Parnis in Munxar, Grima in San Lawrenz, Sultana & Refalo in Xagħra and Cini in Żebbuġ.

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It is interesting to note the meaning behind some of the common surnames in Gozo – these definitions go back hundreds of years.

Vella – is a surname associated with the word “bella” meaning “beautiful” in Italian.

Attard – is a Sicilian surname made from the words “atha”, meaning noble, and “hardu”, meaning brave.

Camilleri – has Greek-Sicilian or Spanish origins from the words “Camelliere” meaning “camel rider”.

Grech – from the Italian “Greco” mean “Greek”.

Portelli – has Italian origins from the word “Portello” – referring to the small door within a larger door opening as found in churches or castles.

Buttigieg – is a word of Arabic origin referring to somebody who raises or sells chickens.

Because of the commonality of certain surnames, families used to traditionally be known by their “laqam”, or family nickname. Maltese surnames reflect the rich and fascinating history of the Maltese islands. They can give a clear knowledge of an individual’s descendants, such as their way of life, occupation, and even some aspects of their behaviour or traits.