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Discovering the Meaning of Your Armenian Family Name

What’s in a name? More than you might expect! Family names can hold clues to a family’s origin or family relationships, interests, occupations, locations, and even connections to royalty. If you have Armenian heritage, understanding Armenian surnames will help you connect with your family as you discover your Armenian family history. Check out information on Armenia in the FamilySearch wiki to help you continue your search!

Armenian Surname Structure

Virtually all Armenian surnames consist of a root and one or more suffixes. The root may be a given name such as Petros or Samvel, or it may be a title, personal characteristic, occupation, or place-name. Examples of roots and their meanings include the following:

  • Kade (magistrate, judge, cadi)
  • Kabasakal (having a coarse or bushy beard)
  • Baghdasar (“Balthasar” in English, meaning protector of the king)
  • Zeytounts (a city in historical Armenia)
statues of the armenian alphabet

Armenian Surname Suffixes

By far the most frequently used suffix is -ian and its variations, such as -yan, -jan, ians, and others. This suffix means “issued from” or “family of.” For example, someone with the surname Zakarian would be the child or descendant of Zakar.

Other less common suffixes include the following:

  • -li, which denotes a place name. For example, the surname Sivaslian indicates a connection to the city of Sivas. (Note that this surname has two suffixes: “li,” referring to the place-name, and the modified “an” for “ian.” So this surname indicates someone who is the child or descendant of a person connected with Sivas.)
  • -tsi, which points to a place of origin. For example, the surname Shirakatsi indicates a family origin of Shirak.
  • -ji or -chi, which denotes a merchant.
  • -ter or -der is a title of respect for a priest. A surname such as Ter-Petrosyan indicates that the person had an ancestor who was a priest.
  • -uni indicates a family connection to Armenian nobility. Examples include Pahlavuni and Mandakuni.
armenian dolls

Patronymics in Armenian Surnames

The -ian and similar suffixes come from the patronymic naming system used for many years in Armenian surnames. In this system, the surname of the child is based on the first name of the father. So, for example, a man named Samvel Petrosian would be the son of Petros. And Samvel’s son Alex would be named Alex Samvelian.

Patronymics gradually fell out of use in the early 1900s as Armenians, like others, began using the same surname over multiple generations.

A New Land, a New Name

If you have ancestors who immigrated to the United States, you might have heard stories about immigration officials assigning new surnames to immigrants. Perhaps it happened at times. However, researcher Mark Arslan reviewed over 60,000 Armenian names on millions of ship manifests, and he found “no evidence that anyone of Armenian ethnicity was arbitrarily assigned an ‘American’ name on the ship manifest.”

Instead, he discovered other reasons immigrants chose to change their names. Often they wanted to adapt to a new culture and language. In addition, some chose to shorten their lengthy surnames.  Samourkashian might become Samour, or Aznavourian might become Aznavour. Sometimes Armenian surnames were simply translated—Ohannisian might become its English equivalent, Johnson. Other times, surnames were changed to a similar-sounding English word with no linguistic connection to the original—for example, Buyukian (Buyuk means “large person”) might become Bacon.

Whatever the reason, it helps to keep in mind possible surname changes when tracing your family back to Armenia.

an armenian man next to a church

Dictionary of Armenian Surnames

One of the most valuable resources for learning about Armenian surnames is the Dictionary of Armenian Surnames, a labor of love by C. K. Garabed. By his own account, Garabad is not a linguist or philologist; he started documenting Armenian surnames as a hobby. Over the years, he collected over 10,000 names and has noted meanings for many of the roots. The dictionary includes long lists of Armenian surnames, organized alphabetically. It’s fascinating even to browse through this dictionary.

Source: Family Search

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