April 2014 Event: Maltese Surnames and their Significance by Prof Maurice Cauchi

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Professor Maurice Cauchi gave an interesting talk to the MHA on Tuesday 15th April, highlighting a number of interesting aspects relating to Maltese surnames.  His interest in surnames started some 20 odd years ago when he began investigating surnames as bearers of genetic traits – surnames are also inherited from the father!

 It is striking that in Malta and Gozo a few surnames are shared by a large number of the population. For instance, in some villages in Gozo, five surnames account for half of the total population.

This indicates a high degree of homogeneity ('sameness') resulting from inbreeding, although a recent census in Malta (2011) shows some reduction of this degree of homogeneity.  Certain surnames are associated with certain villages as there was not a lot of travel between villages in the past and people tended to marry within their own villages.


This census also shows that over the whole of Malta, the top 10 surnames cover three-quarters of the population. The most common surnames in Malta are: Borg, Camilleri, Vella, Farrugia, Zammmit, Galea, Micallef, Grech, Attard, and Spiteri.  In Gozo, there are some slight differences: the most common surname is Vella, followed by Attard, Camilleri, Grech, Portelli, Buttigieg, Sultana, Azzopardi, Spiteri, and Zammit.

Moreover, there are certain surnames, which, while not common, occur characteristically in certain localities but not in others.  These include surnames like Rapa, Mintoff, Sultana, and Buttigieg.

One explanation for these variations is that the older the surname in the Maltese population, the more likely it is to be found in large numbers. For example, all of the top 10 surnames have existed in Malta since 1400 AD. This means that these families have had a large number of generations over which to multiply and reach their current prevalence.

Arabic (semitic) surnames are the relic of Arabic (and more likely Siculo/Arabic) influence.  Following these, there was an influx of Europeans starting with Frederick II in 1220, and the various European rulers that controlled Malta.

Many more modern surnames have arrived in Malta as a result of influx at various times.  These included Greek names from Rhodes coming in with the Knights, following their expulsion from Rhodes; workers from Sicily for the extensive building initiated by the Knights; the Italian Risorgimento in 1830-70; and the latest being the building of the breakwater (1903-1906), with several workers coming from Italy and Spain.

Professor Cauchi pointed out that while the Maltese take pride in their coats of arms, many were  simply made up.

The talk was followed by an animated discussion on the meanings of surnames. Some of these started as nicknames or related to someone’s occupation or physical characteristics, such as Gambin, Testaferrata and Buttigieg.  

Several prizes of Professor Cauchi’s book, Health Issues Today were awarded to people who correctly described the origins of their surnames and many of us continued the discussion over tea and coffee afterwards.  It was a most enjoyable evening.

Copies of the talk may be obtained from Prof Cauchi's website:  mauricecauchi.wordpress.com


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