“What is a name?” asks herself Juliet while contemplating the starry night from her balcony. Because a name is what’s keeping her from Romeo. Is it a label for the physical body? The memories and emotions created by someone? Cultural heritage? Is it our consciousness? Well, to answer Juliet, it’s all of that and so much more…
Like in many societies around the globe, Romanians have a surname (family/last name) and a first name (given or Christian). It’s possible to have a second and even a third name. Each of them carry meaning and are used in different ways.
For example, surnames are offered in formal situations, when there’s some administrative business to take care of or to quickly dissociate from a crowd. They are a link to a smaller community – your family. A first name is more appropriate to give in day-to-day social interactions. It’s something personal that identifies an individual among other members of a group (in this case, the family).
When couples decide to get married, they also get to choose their surname. Either one of them can take the other’s surname, or just compound both. This is an important decision, as it can affect how their children will be called. While according to the law newly-weds can decide on their surname, traditionally the wife will take the husband’s surname.
In the Romanian language, a family name has only one form, and it doesn’t change depending on the gender of the person who carries it. Kids inherit the family name, they can go with either or both from parents (double surnames) or they can take the mother’s surname, but traditionally the vast majority will inherit the surname of the father.
The linguistic variety of Romanian surnames reflects the country’s long history and ethnic background. It’s also an expression of geographical conditions, as the natural barrier represented by the Carpathian Mountains and the border to the Black Sea always meant a significant influence on the nation, even today.
Each of the provinces that make up modern Romania, though inhabited by populations drawing from common ancestors, struggled and had to endure separate experiences, before coming together. Evidence of all these encounters can be noticed in language, mentalities, worldviews, spirituality, and of course names.
In the north and center, inside the half-ring of the Carpathian Mountains, Transylvania comprised three regions in the past: Ardeal, Maramureș, and Banat. The entire region was under the thumb of the Habsburg and Austrian-Hungarian Empires for over 400 years. Thus, Saxon and Hungarian influences are still very present in every aspect of peoples’ lives.
In the south, Țara Românească (Walachia) comprised two regions, Muntenia and Oltenia. Wallachia clashed with the Ottoman Empire for more than 300 years.
In the northeast, Moldavia was also shaped by the Ottoman Empire. However, this land went without the Greek touch felt by Wallachia and developed slightly differently because of strong Russian and Polish influence. In the southeast, Dobruja was molded both by the Ottoman Empire and the Greek Phanariotes.
Also, the Danube Delta region has faced some strong Ukrainian and Russian interference because of the vicinity by sea and the closeness to these neighboring countries throughout history.
As with many European languages, Romanian surnames are often created by using affixes, such as “-an”, “-aru”, “-atu”, “-eanu”, or “-escu”. These particles add certain meanings and follow the Latin suffix patterns. “Escu” is probably the most used and stands for “son of”. “-An” and “-eanu” are the typical endings for surnames that indicate geographical regions, meaning that a family originated in a precise geographical location. “-Aru” and “-atu” perform a different function, as they hint at an occupation or craft that was present in the family’s past.
The 10 most common Romanian surnames
With over 21,000 extended families named Popa, this is by far the most frequent Romanian surname, regardless of the historical area of the country. It comes from Latin where in ancient Rome common people were just described as “populus” (the people). Many didn’t have any way of proving their identity (at a time when regular folks did not have access to education and couldn’t read or write) and went into slavery. So, a generic name had to be applied.
In Transylvania, at the end of the 19th century, Romanian peasants were registered by the Austro-Hungarian administration to convince them of changing their Orthodox faith. As many had no papers to establish their identity, they were penned under the name Pop or other similar forms. The custom was borrowed from the Roman Empire, using the same word derived from “populus”. Thus, the name Popa is a historical trace of an event from the country’s past.
The second-most-common Romanian surname is strongly linked to the first in meaning and form. Through a simple process of adding the affix “-escu” is created a recurring name for much of the population south of the Carpathians. It’s repeatedly heard in those counties that belong to historical Oltenia. Approximately 18,000 extended families share this surname and is present in almost 1,500 cities or villages. Popescu means “son of Popa”. Again, this highlights a situation where administrative units had to assign a surname when the population was first quantified.
Coming third on the list, Pop is another derivate of the first two, short for Popa. As a dominant surname, it appears in the northwest region of Romania, in 5 counties belonging to historical Maramureș. With over 15,000 extended families named Pop, living in over 800 cities or villages, the name stresses on the same organizational problem as before. This was an issue affecting much of the public at the beginning of the 19th century, with their identity defined as belonging to a certain family, under a patriarchal name.
Radu is generally a first name, but so full of meaning and steeped in history, that it also become a surname. As a prominent last name, it is generously sprinkled among counties outside the Carpathian arc, in the south, and the West of Romania. Pertaining to more than 12,000 families and present in 1,400 cities and villages, Radu is one of the oldest Romanian names. Borrowed from the Slavic languages, it’s a diminutive form, and means “happy” or “willing”.
A Slavic influence over the Romanian language was very noticeable during the ninth century, when it was shaped through spirituality. This is when a great part of society united under a common orthodox belief. As a result of religious services being done in Slavic, an abundance of words and names entered the vocabulary and became a part of it.
A family name with the ending “-escu”, suggesting “son of”, this is an altered version of Ion, a first name of Greek origin. As a Romanian equivalent to the English “John”, it can be traced back to Hebrew and the old apostles. Because of the multitude of saints found in the New Testament, it’s also a popular surname. The Christian connotation is “God is good”. In Romania, there are around 12,000 extended families who bear the name Ionescu spread over roughly 1,000 cities or villages.
Like Radu, Dumitru was originally a first name in Romanian. With time, it transformed into a surname for almost 9,500 extended families, who live in over 1,000 cities or villages. Drawing from the Greek “Demeter”, which translates as “mother earth”. The name is very common in the counties that belong to the historical Walachia. For six counties in the southeast, Dumitru is the most common surname.
A prevailing family name in Walachia (especially in the area around Bucharest) and southern Transylvania, Stoica is a name descending from a Slavic word that means “to stand”. Almost 9,000 extended families share it in Romania, and they live in over 1,200 cities or villages. Interestingly, the 12 counties where the name Stoica is the most common surname are placed in the middle of the country, roughly following the Carpathian Mountains line.
Stan is another very widespread Romanian surname, found all along the south and eastern regions of the country. There are almost 9,000 extended families named so, scattered over 1,100 towns or villages. Of Slavic origin, it has the same linguistic root as Stoica, implying a similar translation, “to stand”. Early records show it first appearing in Romanian administrative papers during the 15th century.
Both a given name and a surname, Gheorghe is Greek for “peasant” or “farmworker”. The legend of Saint Gheorghe, a Christian hero slaying a dragon, made it very popular. Same for another frequent variant, George. In Romania, there are over 8,500 extended families named Gheorghe. Most of them settled in the South-Eastern part of the country. The name is prevalent in 13 counties and appears in almost 900 towns or villages.
An ethnic name in a definite articulated variant of “rus” as in “(the) Russian”. Another example of Slavic influence (including the Russian one) and it’s effect on Romanian culture and history. Generally found in the counties of Moldavia, which used to border Russia, but also in some Transylvanian ones. It’s a surname for approximately 8,000 extended families, spread around 1,200 towns or villages.
Popular Romanian First Names
In accordance to a deep interest in religion and spirituality, Romanians often preferred names of Christian saints for their children. The namesake was meant to protect them throughout his or her life. The child’s birthday would play a part in choosing, as the Orthodox religious calendar celebrates saints on many dates (for instance, St. Ioan is honored seven times during a year).
A birth certificate is not the only record that notes a baby’s name. After performing a christening ritual, the church also registers its own files. In fact, for many families in Romania, the chronicles of the church represented an important genealogical source, as the ancestors of the family can be traced back for many generations. Apart from tradition, Romanian first names are subject to trends, as in most other countries. There are certain years when parents prefer customary names and then there are years when many families pick out foreign names.
Popular female names
A linguistic characteristic for Slavic languages it that last names end in “-a”. In Romanian, this was adopted for given names instead. (Of course, there are exceptions.)
According to Romania’s National Institute of Statistics, the most frequent female first names in 2021 were Ana-Maria, Maria, Andreea, Alexandra, Ioana, Elena, Maria Alexandra, Denisa, Bianca Maria, and Georgiana. As you can notice, they all end in “a”. Many of the highest ranking ones were also combinations of the same names, for example, Maria appears in four of the ten names above.
There is a tendency nowadays, especially among younger mothers, to steer away from tradition and opt for shorter or foreign alternatives. In many cases, this is inspired by the culture of the country in which the parents live when the child is born, as many Romanian families travel abroad for work. Among the newer choices, the Romanian National Institute for statistics lists: Eva, Eliza, Lidia, Miriam, Rebeca, Sara, Isabela, and Elisabeta.
Popular male names
For Romanian male first names, the lexical characteristic is exactly opposite, by never ending in “-a”. One notable exception is Toma, a biblical name, borrowed from Hebrew, that means “twin”. Plenty of names for boys end in consonants, like Bogdan, Florin, Vlad. For vowels, Alexandru ends with “-u”, “Andrei” has the suffix “-i”etc.
In 2021, the most prevalent male first names were: Andrei, Alexandru, Ștefan, David, Mihai, Ionuț, Florin, Daniel, Gabriel, and Matei. Unlike female first names, there is no tendency to use combined names for boys. Typically, they are shorter and often have biblical origins.
As with female names, there are certain male names used by young families which are inspired by foreign languages. This is mainly done where Romanian ex-pat communities are numerous. Such is the case with Italian, which shares a common Latin root with Romanian.
The result is that some names which were popular in the interwar period, for example (under the influence of French culture, which is also of Latin origin), become popular again. The likes of Felix, Filip, Luca, Cristian are all experiencing a surge in popularity because of an influx of Italian associations. There are other popular male names, such as Iacob, Iosif, or Toma, mostly with biblical origins.
Check this article for a full list of Romanian male names.
Romanian names are an obvious reflection of the way language and culture evolve within a community. Whereas surnames take more time to develop, but contain a greater amount of historical influence, first names are in constant change and highlight the dynamic views of generations. Tradition still plays a great deal of importance in name choice. But the language factor is also to be considered, as first names provide a glimpse into the evolution of language and social conditions while depicting certain unexpected realities, like the contemporary migration phenomenon.