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30 Discoveries About Family History in Spanish Surnames

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If your family name represents an occupation, you know something about how one—or likely more—of your ancestors made a living. In English, occupational names, like Smith and Miller, are among the most common. In Spanish, though, patronymics (names derived from a father’s name) like Rodríguez (son of Rodrigo) and Martínez (son of Martín) are far more common. In a Spanish government ranking of surname frequency, you have to scan down to #30 (Molina) before you find a name definitely related to a trade. There are plenty of occupational surnames in Spanish, though. Some, like Barbero and Carpintero, are transparent. Here are a few that are a bit less obvious.

1. ABAD, ABATO, ABADE, ADAT, BADAL, BADIOLA, BADÍAS

These surnames all derive from Latin abbas, which in turn comes from Aramaic abba, “father”; all refer to an abbot.

2. BALLESTA, BALLESTER, BALLESTERO, BALLESTEROS

These names referred to someone who used a crossbow (ballesta), a bowman. A ballestero came to mean a royal armorer and later someone who assisted with shotguns on royal hunts.

3. BATANERO

Batanero, like the English word fuller, referred to someone who beat or agitated cloth (especially wool) in water to remove oil and dirt, making it thicker.

4. BERMEJO

Bermejo (vermilion) comes from Latin vermiculus, diminutive of vermis, “worm” and referred to those who made a red dye from an insect Kermes vermilio.

5. BOTERO

The Colombian artist Fernando Botero is known for painting and sculpting rotund figures who look as if they might enjoy guzzling wine from a bulging bota. A botero is a maker of wineskins or bottles. Botero can also relate to bote or “rowboat,” however, and some people with this name may have had ancestors who were ferrymen rather than bottle makers.

6. BOYERO

A boyero is an ox driver.

7. CABALLERO

Although caballero now means “gentleman,” it comes from late Latin caballarius, from Latin caballus, “horse,” and originally meant “knight.”

8. CABRERA, CABRERO, CABRA, CABRAL

These names derive from Latin caprarius and mean goatherd. A variant, Cabrisas, is an archaic term for goat pen.

9. CALDERÓN

This surname, which is shared by a recent president of Mexico and a poet and playwright of the Golden Age of Spanish literature, means caldron and was given to a maker of cooking pots.

10. CANTERO

A cantero is a stonemason.

11. CARRILLO, CARRO, CARRERA, CARRERO, CARRETA, CARRIL

These surnames come from Spanish carro, from Latin carrus, “cart,” and refer to cart or wagon makers. Carrillo also means “cheek” and one source says the name was given to those with unusual cheeks.

12. CUBERO

Cuba means “cask”; a cubero is a cooper, or barrel maker.

13. ESCRIBANO

An escribano was a scrivener—a clerk, scribe or notary who certified documents.

14. ESCUDERO(S), ESCUDILLO

From Latin scutarius, escudero means “shield bearer or squire.”

15. FUSTER, FUSTÉ

These names relate to fustero, meaning “carpenter,” or more specifically, “turner, lathe operator.”

16. FERRER, FERRERO, FERREIRO, FERREIRA, FERRUFINO, FERRÓN, HERRERA, DE HERRERA, HERRERO, HIERRO, HERRADA

These are all historical and regional variants of a word meaning “iron.” The name was applied to blacksmiths, but in some cases may have arisen from a place name.

17. GUERRA , GUERRERO

The Spanish word guerra, “war,” comes from Germanic werra. Guerrero means warrior.

18. HIDALGO, FIDALGO

From Latin filius aliquid, “son of something [i.e. wealth],” the name was applied to noblemen.

19. JURADO

Jurado means “sworn.” The present meaning is “juror,” but earlier on it referred to sworn officials with a variety of duties.

20. LABRADOR

From Latin laborātor, “laborer,” labrador refers to someone who works the earth, a plowman or farmer.

21. MARÍN, MARINO, MARINA, MARES, DELMAR

From the Latin word marinus, meaning “man of the sea,” these are variants of the word for sailor.

22. MERINO, MERÍN, MERINA, MERINERO

From (you guessed it) Latin maiorinus, “something greater,” a merino was a judge appointed by the king to preside over a broad jurisdiction.

23. MELERO

From Latin (yet again) mellarĭus, “honey collector, beekeeper,” melero means a seller of honey.

24. MOLINA, MOLINO, MOLINERO, MOLINER, MOLNER, MUELAS, MOLA, MOLERO

These variants of terms for “mill” or “miller” come from Latin molinum, which is derived from molere, “to grind” (as your molars do).

25. OBREGÓN, OBRERO, OBRADOR

Although these names ultimately derive from Latin opus, “work,” and the current meaning of both obrador and obrero is “worker,” the surname Obregón came from the Asturian dialect of Spanish where it had developed a more specific meaning: butcher.

26. ROMERO, ROMER, ROMEO, BORROMEO, ROMÁN, ROMANO

This surname and its variants have two sources: Latin romanus, “inhabitant or native of Rome,” and late Latin romaeus, “pilgrim.”

27. TEJERO, TEIJEIRO, TEJERINA, TEXEIRA, TEJADA

These are some of the variants of tejero, a maker of roofing tiles or bricks.

28. VAQUERO

From vaca, “cow” + - ero (agentive suffix), vaquero, as many Western fans know, is a cowboy.

29. VERDUGO

If this is your surname, you may be glad you’re not in the family business. A verdugo was an executioner.

30. ZAPATERO, SABATER

Spanish speakers know that the name Zapatero means shoemaker, but they may not recognize that Sabater is the Catalán equivalent.

Sources: Elián, Gran libro de los apellidos y la heráldica; Real Academia Española, Diccionario de la lengua española; Robb, Encyclopedia of American Family Names; Wikipedia: la encyclopedia libre, Apellido; Williams, Diccionario ingles y español

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Why Does Japan Have Blue Traffic Lights Instead of Green?
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In Japan, a game of Red Light, Green Light might be more like Red Light, Blue Light. Because of a linguistic quirk of Japanese, some of the country’s street lights feature "go" signals that are distinctly more blue than green, as Atlas Obscura alerts us, making the country an outlier in international road design.

Different languages refer to colors very differently. For instance, some languages, like Russian and Japanese, have different words for light blue and dark blue, treating them as two distinct colors. And some languages lump colors English speakers see as distinct together under the same umbrella, using the same word for green and blue, for instance. Again, Japanese is one of those languages. While there are now separate terms for blue and green, in Old Japanese, the word ao was used for both colors—what English-speaking scholars label grue.

In modern Japanese, ao refers to blue, while the word midori means green, but you can see the overlap culturally, including at traffic intersections. Officially, the “go” color in traffic lights is called ao, even though traffic lights used to be a regular green, Reader’s Digest says. This posed a linguistic conundrum: How can bureaucrats call the lights ao in official literature if they're really midori?

Since it was written in 1968, dozens of countries around the world have signed the Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals, an international treaty aimed at standardizing traffic signals. Japan hasn’t signed (neither has the U.S.), but the country has nevertheless moved toward more internationalized signals.

They ended up splitting the difference between international law and linguists' outcry. Since 1973, the Japanese government has decreed that traffic lights should be green—but that they be the bluest shade of green. They can still qualify as ao, but they're also green enough to mean go to foreigners. But, as Atlas Obscura points out, when drivers take their licensing test, they have to go through a vision test that includes the ability to distinguish between red, yellow, and blue—not green.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Using Words Like 'Really' A Lot Could Mean You're Really Stressed
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Are you feeling really exhausted? Or have you noticed that it's incredibly hot out today?

If you recognize the adverbs above as appearing frequently in your own speech, it could be a sign that you're stressed. At least, those are the findings in a recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. As Nature reports, researchers found that peppering our speech with "function words" is a pretty accurate indicator of our anxiety levels.

Function words differ from verbs and nouns in that they don't mean much on their own and mostly serve to clarify the words around them. Included in this group are pronouns, adverbs, and adjectives. A team of American researchers suspected that people use these words more frequently when they're stressed, so to test their hypothesis, they hooked up recording devices to 143 volunteers.

After transcribing and analyzing audio clips recorded periodically over the course of two days, the researchers compared subjects' speech patterns to the gene expressions of certain white blood cells in their bodies that are susceptible to stress. They found that people exhibiting the biological symptoms of stress talked less overall, but when they did speak up they were more likely to use words like really and incredibly.

They also preferred the pronouns me and mine over them and their, possibly indicating their self-absorbed world view when under pressure. The appearance of these trends predicted stress in the volunteers' genes more accurately than their own self-assessments. As study co-author Matthias Mehl told Nature, this could be a reason for doctors to "listen beyond the content" of the symptoms their patients report and pay greater attention "to the way it is expressed" in the future.

One reason function words are such a great indicator of stress is that we often insert them into our sentences unconsciously, while our choice of words like nouns and verbs is more deliberate. Anxiety isn't the only thing that influences our speech without us realizing it. Hearing ideas we agree with also has a way of shaping our syntax.

[h/t Nature]

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