Any Sherlock can detect a number of things from my surname. Chetcuti is a clear indication that my ancestors bred cackles of baby chicks or that they used to laugh gently – like giggling chickens apparently – or that they used to be masters of the house.
The most racist people have a surname that takes them back to the roots of the culture they are racist about
Of course, not everything is passed on over the generations. I have never seen a chick come out of a shell, my laughter is more bear-like than a tinkle, but I like to pretend that I am master of the house.
Like my age-old Arabic one, each surname has its own tale, and given that there are about 20,000 of them in Malta there are lots of stories to go about. What is certain is that our surnames are very indicative of our country’s multicultural history.
“There is no surname more Maltese than any other,” said linguist Mario Cassar.
“It really jars sometimes that the most racist of people have a surname that would take them back to the roots of the culture they are racist about,” Dr Cassar said.
The 2011 census collected a total of 19,104 surnames. The top 10 are: Borg, Camilleri, Vella, Farrugia, Zammit, Galea, Micallef, Grech, Attard, Spiteri and Azzopardi. And 25 per cent of the population – 99,516 – own just these 10 surnames. A total of 178,018 people – 44 per cent – have surnames which make it to the top 25 list.
But here is the stunning news: 76 per cent of the population – 307,886 people – share the same 100 surnames.
“This means that three-quarters of the whole population carry the top 100 surnames, while the remaining 23.98 per cent – 97,076 people – share the remaining 12,210 surnames,” Dr Cassar said.
This, he said, probably shows a degree of inbreeding. “That is why we suffer from a lot of chronic illnesses – such as diabetes.”
Gozo – due to its smaller size – gives a clearer picture of this idiosyncrasy. One typical Gozitan surname seems to be Rapa but the surname Xuereb is predominate in Għajnsielem, Mintoff in Għasri, Debrincat in Munxar, Grima in San Lawrenz, Sultana in Xagħra and Cini in Żebbuġ.
“If you meet a Gozitan with Buttiġieġ as a surname you can almost be certain that he’d be from Qala,” Dr Cassar said.
If you meet a Gozitan called Buttiġieġ you can almost be certain that he’s from Qala
There are also some peculiar trends in Malta, such as the strong showings of Abela in Żejtun, Aquilina in Għargħur, Bugeja in Marsaxlokk, Magro in Qrendi, Dalli in Gudja, and Busuttil in Safi. Other less marked, but equally clear concentrations are manifest in the cases of Carabott in Marsaxlokk, Sacco in Kirkop, Bezzina in Għargħur, Abdilla in Safi, and Manduca in Mdina. Penza, for example, is an overwhelmingly Luqa surname.
Dr Cassar explained that Maltese surnames may easily be divided into three surname groups: Semitic (Arabic and Hebrew), Romance (mainly Italian, Sicilian, Spanish and French), and English (as well as Scottish, Irish and Welsh). Today one also has to factor in other European and international family names which accumulated through recent ethnic intermarriages.
The number of Semitic surnames is only around 50, but despite this low number, most of us have an Arabic surname. “Each one of these Semitic surnames is borne by a significant aggregate of families, whereas many of the more modern Romance and European surnames are less numerous,” he said.
Surnames have reached the island over many centuries in complicated historical and linguistic conditions, and because Malta has always been a place for coexistence of various ethnic groups. And they always developed in parallel with the language.
After the Norman invasion, the indigenous Muslim population, although subjected to Christian rule, still kept its cultural and linguistic heritage.
The expulsion of the Muslims in the 13th century, and that of the Jews in the 15th century, however, brought about the final rupture of the powerful cultural ties which had bound Malta to the North African Arabo-Berber world.
“Since then, barring latter-day English influence, the dominant cultural driving force in Malta has come from Sicily, Italy and other European, mainly Mediterranean, countries,” Dr Cassar said.
By the late middle ages, the majority of typical Maltese surnames were already well established – not only such obviously Semitic ones such as Abdilla, Agius, Asciak, Bajada, Bugeja, Buhagiar, Borg, Busuttil, Buttigieg, Caruana, Cassar, Chetcuti, Ebejer, Farrugia, Fenech, Micallef, Mifsud, Saliba, Zerafa and Zammit, but many others which are clearly of European extraction (mainly Sicilian, Italian, Spanish, and Greek) like Azzopardi, Baldacchino, Portelli, Brincat, Bonnici, Cachia, Cardona, Cilia, Dalli, Darmanin, Debono, Formosa, Gatt, Galea, Grima, Aquilina, Mallia, Pace, Falzon and Vella.
Probably, the oldest documented surnames in Malta are Grech, Calleja, Falzon, Attard, and Lentini. Grech and Calleja go back to the 13th century Angevin times.
Internationally-renowned tenor Joseph Calleja probably got his surname from a Greek derivation and not from Spain – as is most commonly believed.
“The names Martinus and Leo Calleya appear locally in 1277, before the Spanish ruled Malta, so that is why it is more plausible for Calleja to have originated in Greece,” Dr Cassar said.
Surnames are conventionally divided into four broad categories according to their original source: those derived from personal names, those from place names, those from occupational names, and those from nicknames. Behind each one there is particular significance.
The Prime Minister’s surname – Muscat – is Italian or French and dates back to the late middle ages. Its origin may refer to a grower of muscat grapes, or a producer or merchant of muscatel, a strong sweet wine made from the muscat grape grown in the Loire Valley. But it can also mean ‘fly’ from the Italian mosca or the Jewish ‘nutmeg’.
Busuttil, the surname of the Opposition leader, is probably a derivative of the medieval Maltese surname Busittin – meaning master of 60 men.
“He could have been the leader of 60 militiamen assigned to guard the local coasts against piratical attacks,” said Dr Cassar. The custom of surname-giving, even in Malta, was mainly motivated by the emergence of new administrative practices inherent in the medieval feudal system. As societies became more complex, and taxes started being collected, a more refined system of names developed to distinguish one individual from another reliably and unambiguously.
But if you have a coat of arms, beware: it does not necessarily depict the true meaning of the surname. “There is no strong heraldic tradition in Malta. It was fashionable in the 19th century to commission someone to make you one – most of them were devised in an arbitrary fashion,” Dr Cassar warned.
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