How Do Brazilians Name Their Children?

A Brazilian girl in traditional costume watches a performance during a street festival in Maceio, Brazil, on June 18, 2014.

Photo by Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty Images

This question originally appeared on Quora, the best answer to any question. Ask a question, get a great answer. Learn from experts and access insider knowledge. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus.

Answer by Jose Geraldo Gouvea, amateur fiction writer:

Brazil has somewhat of a tradition of naming people with ludicrous names, a habit that comes down from the early days of our independence. This tradition has seen several different phases. Though I am not an absolute authority on this subject, I will share with you some of it, for your pleasure.

Just after becoming independent, affluent Brazilian families who wished to show off that they had really severed their ties with Portugal would choose for their children names in Tupi, an Amerindian language that was widely spoken in the country (even by white people) until the second half of the 18th century. But Tupi was a dying language when the habit appeared, so many people were christened with names that both sounded awful and had awful meanings. But most of the time these names only had an improper gender, like Araci, usually given to women, which was the name of the Tupian sun god. Among the names most often remembered as improper are Marimbondo (hornet), Ipanema (polluted or barren water), or Irajá (beehive).

Other families, with more “revolutionary” minds, would give their children French names to honor La Révolution. Most of these name are also improper because they gave their children the surnames of French politicians of philosophers. So we have Brazilians names Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau, and the like. Since French was popular as the language of the élites back then, some people would choose French names even if they were not fans of the French Revolution. Some of them came about with interesting schemes. In Rio Grande do Norte, a state in the Brazilian Northeast, a wealthy family numbered their children in French instead of giving them proper names. Fans of arts and sciences would choose the names of famous composers, sages, painters, or writers from France, Germany, Italy, and (to a lesser extent) Great Britain. Military officials would honor famous generals, mostly from France, Germany, and Great Britain: Nelson and Wellington, but also Napoleon (soon adapted into Napoleão) and Bismarck.

By the time Brazil had become a republic, the French were falling out favor, replaced by the Americans. The same phenomenon of the previous century happened again: People christened their babies with the surnames of famous Americans. The list is extensive, and a cursory search of any database of Brazilians will turn out familiar surnames turned into given names: Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Wilson, Roosevelt, Kennedy, Jackson, Nixon, Clinton.

Brazilians, especially poor people, feel that giving their children uncommon names is a way to make them stand out. Until recently a large portion of the population lacked surnames (or used makeshift surnames). Since they didn’t have genealogies to rely upon, they’d give their children preposterous, pompous, or simply ludicrous names. This is not a recent tradition—it comes down from the times of the empire.

There were three ways to give children such “important” names: digging up the names of obscure saints, martyrs, or historical figures; making up names from words that were not usually chosen as given names; or choosing a combination of given names and surnames that would amount to some meaning. (Simpsons fans may recall Homer once gave himself the name Max Power.)

Obscure ancient names were often given to slaves because, since they had no surnames (or had them forbidden), their owners wanted to prevent doubles. Some of these names include Orozimbo, Pancrácio, Cunegundes (female), Agrícola (male), etc. Some of these once uncommon names have become mainstream. However used by slave owners, they were by no means exclusive to that context.

Names made up of words that are normally not used as names are often funny because the words may have changed meanings since they were first chosen. One such example is Marciano. When this name was popular (before 1950) it was understood as a reference to the Roman god of war, Mars. But now the word is mostly used with the meaning of Martian (from the planet Mars). However, some of these were funny right from the start, like Aeronauta (airman), Alma (ghost), Argonauta (argonaut), Benvindo/a (welcome), or Delícia (delight).

Names that are only funny when the full name is read are often bring up obscene phrases or even blasphemous results. This phenomenon has become even more common with the arrival of immigrants, bringing many new surnames that produced unpredictable results when combined with traditional names. Because some foreign surnames didn’t sound OK in Portuguese or coincided with blasphemies or swears, immigrants were sometimes advised to choose a random surname. This is why it is so rare in a country that received millions of Italian immigrants to find a Buscetta family (Translate “buceta” and know why—at your own risk).

More recently people have been fond of making up new given names by combining parts of existing names, usually the names of the father and the mother. So a man named Gilberto and a woman named Marta would christen their son as Gilmar. And people have also given their children the names of pop stars and football players (both national and foreign) like Madonna, Walter (from Fritz Walter), Michael Jackson, John Lennon, Elton John, Riquelme, Resenbrink, and others. Such names are often mangled beyond recognition if both the parents and the registrar are monolingual and don’t know how to write the names correctly.

And yes, Brazilian civil code allows you to change your name if it embarrasses you. We don’t have a law forbidding strange names, only a recommendation from a higher court telling registrars to avoid accepting obscene, blasphemous, or ludicrous names—but it is up to the registrar to decide whether the chosen name is unacceptable. Usually, if a registrar refuses a name, the family may register the child elsewhere or obtain a judicial order to force the registrar to accept it.

Of course, these names are in minority. Most Brazilians have straightforward names, though quite many of them are still of Tupi origin, because we have become fond of them. Some names of Tupi origin include:

  • Moacir (son of pain), male
  • Cauã (hawk), male
  • Jaci (moon), male or female
  • Janaína (house deity), female
  • Ubirajara (wood spear warrior), male
  • Ubiratã (stiff spear), male
  • Iara or Uiara (water lady), female
  • Potira (flower), female
  • Iracema (sweet one), female
  • Rudá (god of dreams), male
  • Maíra (cassava), female

More questions on Quora: