What’s in a Name: What You Can Learn About a Family History From Greek Surnames

Family History
11 May 2023
by Ancestry® Team

Bordered on all sides by vast blue seas, Greece is an archipelagic country with a storied history. In keeping with what is often considered the cradle of Western civilization, Greek surnames have interesting and telling origins, with many of these last names providing insight into the family’s occupational history and more. 

Find out what the most common Greek surnames are today and what they mean about your family history

Leverage Greek Naming Conventions

If you have Greek roots, you can leverage naming conventions to learn more about your ancestors, including where they came from and what their primary occupations were. 

Greek surname origins make it simple to get information about an ancestor. Traditionally, Greek surnames were based on facts about a person, such as where they lived, what they did for work, or the name of their father. 

Modern Greek surnames were not common until the late 1400s. Before that point, people were primarily referred to by their first names. However, to differentiate between individuals, individuals were sometimes given a patronymic last name. This was their father’s first name with a suffix, meaning “son of” or “daughter of.” 

By the 1100s, upper-class Greeks were using hereditary surnames that more closely resembled the way families pass down names by generation. These names typically came from a place or were based on what line of work that family was in. That’s why, when translating Greek surnames today, many of them have a meaning that refers to a type of job or industry. 

Why Are Some Greek Surnames So Long?

Greek surnames are often longer than last names in countries like England, Ireland, or the United States because they’re made up of multiple words. Greek last names often get their meaning by combining two or more words to explain a relationship to an ancestor. They may also include a suffix and a first name to indicate who the person’s father was. 

Greek Royal Family
Greek Royal Family, Library of Congress

10 Most Common Greek Surnames

Last names from Greece are typically derived from the first name of an ancestor, a place, or an occupation. These are the most common surnames in Greece:

  1. Papadopoulos: This is the most common surname in Greece and means “son of a priest.” “Papas” is Greek for “priest,” while “poulos” is a suffix that refers to offspring. 
  2. Papadopoulou: A variation of Papadopoulos, this surname is also patronymic and means “son of a priest.” 
  3. Papageorgiou: This surname consists of two words. The first word is “Papa,” meaning priest or man in the church. The second word is a name, George. People with this last name are likely descendants of an ancestor who was a priest named George. 
  4. Oikonomou: This surname comes from an occupation. Derived from the Greek word oikonomos, the last name Oikonomou means “steward” or “housekeeper.” 
  5. Papadimitriou: As with other surnames beginning with “Papa,” this is a patronymic surname that indicates the person is a descendant of a priest. In this case, that priest was named Dimitris or Dimitrios.  
  6. Georgiou: This is a patronymic surname that means “son of George” or “son of Georgios.” It can also apply to other family members and mean “daughter of George” or “wife of George.”
  7. Papaioannou: Another surname beginning with “Papa,” this name means “John the Priest” or “Iōannēs the Priest.” People with this last name are likely descendants of a priest named John.
  8. Pappas: This is an occupational surname that literally translates to “priest.” This last name would be given to a family where the breadwinner was a priest. It can also be a nickname for longer surnames like Papadopoulos. 
  9. Vasileiou: Just like other names ending in this way, Vasileiou is a patronymic surname meaning “son of Vasilis” or “son of Vasilios.” The name can apply to other family members and mean “daughter of” or “wife of” as well. Vasilios is a Greek name derived from Basileios, which means “royal,” so this name could also mean “son of a royal” when considered as an occupational name. 
  10. Nikolaou: Nikolaous is another patronymic surname meaning “son of Nikolaos.” It also holds meanings like “victor of the people” or “victory of the people.” 

Pronunciation Tips for Greek Last Names 

Pronouncing someone’s name correctly is a sign of respect. When attempting to pronounce a lengthy Greek surname in the Americanized way, here are some tips for where to start: 

  • Pronounce the final “e” in a name (it’s not silent).
  • Pronounce a “ch” like a “k.”
  • Pronounce a “c” softly, like an “s,” when it’s before an “e” or an “i.”
  • Pronounce a “g” softly (like in George) when it’s before an “e” or an “i.”

Whether derived from an ancestor’s occupation or patronymic, Greek surnames can say a lot about a person. If you want to learn more about your Greek heritage, explore the history behind popular  Greek surnames, or discover the meaning of your last name, start your free trial of Ancestry today.