Greek surnames are complicated for most foreigners; not to mention how weird they sound!
The origins of Greek surnames, roots and etymology vary a lot; in fact you can find some very typical Greek last names, or very common ones, while others are funny, bizarre or even insulting.
In Greece every period has its own characteristics in name giving or surname creation.
It is historically known that ancient Greeks did not have official last names, but they did have some patronymic characteristic; i.e. Achilles was Achilles Pileidis (from his father Pileas).
The surnames as we know them today appeared towards the end of the 15th century.
Roots and Origins of the Greek Surnames
The vast majority of Greek surnames are known to be patronymics; this means that Greek surnames usually come from the genitive of the first name of the father of the family. Of course you have to go back a few centuries to find who started the tradition, but that is how it goes. So if someone’s last name is Demetriou, that means that the surname came from a man named Demetrios. This was actually an innovation in Grammar, because in their initial form the surnames for women were just a feminine respective of the original masculine name.
This means that the wife or daughter of a man named Bouboulis would be named Bouboulina. It is interesting that the position of women throughout history has been associated with the use of surnames as well; until a few years ago women were obliged to substitute their surname with the one of their husband- later, they were able to keep both surnames, and today, they are free to choose whether they want to keep their surname or add the one of their husband as well (complete substitution is prohibited).
The origins of Greek surnames vary significantly; you can find the patronymics we mentioned earlier, the matronymic ones referring to those that come from mothers’ name, the national or toponymic ones referring to surnames created by names of towns, prefectures and so on. There are also Greek surnames referring to a profession, or the paronymic ones, referring to different abilities, or even animals.
Suffixes and Prefixes in Greek Surnames
In most cases you can recognize the origin of the name and its bearer from the suffix of the surname. For instance, if you see a Greek surname ending in –akis, the person comes from Crete. Not all Cretans have a surname ending in –akis, and not all people with an –akis in their surname are from Crete, but this is very common characteristic and suffix.
Similarly, surnames ending in –ellis come from the island of Lesbos, -opoulos from the Peloponnese peninsula, -idis from Pontus or Asia minor, -iadis from Messinia or Lakonia, -oudas from Macedonia (North Greece).
Prefixes can also give you some information on the origin of the surname:
A last name starting with Kara- means that it comes from the East, or the Asia minor, as “kara” means black in Turkish. Kondo- means short and was very common in islands, Papa- means that once upon a time there was a priest (papas) in the family.
Of course these are generalizations and today due to the vast mixture of names, origins and generations, you cannot rely on these rules. However, it is good to know them since they are part of the Greek tradition and have a lot to do with the old and original roots of most names today.
Common Surnames in Greece
Some of the most common Greek surnames you can find are: Papadopoulos (don’t even try to count how many men named Giorgos Papadopoulos exist in Greece), Papadakis, Ioannou, Georgiou, Demetriou and more.