The Wonderful World of Basque Surnames
Club

The Wonderful World of Basque Surnames

We take a deep dive into the etymology of Basque family names, looking at examples from Athletic Club players over the years

Dec 3, 2022

*Until recently, in large part due to persecution, Euskera has had an oratory tradition. On top of that, Basque also has an exceptionally diverse range of dialects. As such, a word could be spelt differently or have a distinct meaning from region to region or town to town. All this means there is debate about the origins of several surnames. In this article, we have attempted to stick to names where there is a consensus on the etymology. Nonetheless, we also look at ones where it is not quite as clear.

Most Basque surnames can be divided into two groups: patronymic (derived from a father or male ancestor) or toponymic (related to a place).

Euskera has a strong tradition of toponymic family names. Much in the same way English speakers’ surnames might derive from a certain trade (Smith, Taylor, Baker, Carpenter, etc), Basque family names often came from a location, typically a description of the house or farm where they lived.

The etymology of toponymic Basque surnames offers a fascinating insight into the traditions and culture of the region as well as the linguistic structure of Euskera.

Below we delve into the toponymic Basque family names of different Athletic Club players.

Houses/Homes

One of the most common Basque surnames is ‘Etxeberria’, literally translating to new (berria) house (etxe). You might recognise this name thanks to these two iconic Lions: Joseba Etxeberria and Beñat Etxebarria.

There are several variations on names including the word ‘etxe’, essentially descriptions of a house. 

Jon Aurtenetxe: ‘aurten’ means ‘this year’, so all together we have ‘house this year’.

Andoni Goikoetxea: This is a good moment to note that Basque is a agglunative language. Essentially, words are often joined together to form a larger single term with grammatical words (affixes, prepositions, plurals, articles, etc) normally being added to the end of an expression. We can see this here: goiko (from/of above) etxe (house) a (the).

Ager Aketxe: Billy Goat House, ‘ak’ here coming from ‘aker’ which is ‘billy goat’ in English.

Water/rivers/seas

Several toponymic names refer to a body of water such as the sea or rivers. ‘Iturri’, which translates to fountain or water source, is the root of several names.

Iraia Iturregi: ‘egi’ comes from ‘tegi’, which along with ‘aga’ is a suffix meaning ‘place of’, so Iturregi is literally ‘place of water source/fountain’.

Ander Iturraspe: ‘aspe’ derives from ‘azpi’, which means ‘underneath/under/below’, therefore ‘underneath/below the fountain/water source’.

Over time, and especially during the Franco dictatorship, a lot of Basque given names and surnames were heavily restricted, and sometimes prohibited, especially in the case of the former. As a result, many people would adopt the Castilian-Spanish spelling of their surnames. For example, Etxeberria became Echeverria.

However, those regulations were gradually lifted after the transition to democracy. Nowadays, names like Ibai, which means river, and Itxaso, Basque for sea, are more commonplace: Ibai Gomez and Itxaso Uriarte

Curiously, Uriarte means ‘between (arte) town/city (uri)’, so Itxaso Uriarte literally translates to ‘Sea between town/city’.

Mountains/valleys

As The Basque Country is a mountainous region, it’s only natural that several players’ surnames would refer to mountains, peaks or valleys. In this respect a few footballers stand out, all of them legends of the Club.

Mauri Ugartemendia: Ur (water) arte (between) mendi (mountain). 

Agustin ‘Piru’ Gainza: Gain (peak) tza (many). ‘Tza’ and ‘eta’ (note: 'eta' when not a suffix also means ‘and’), are suffixes implying plurality.

Irene and Garazi Murua: Muru/buru (hill).

Jose Angel Iribar: Iri (town) ibar (river valley).

While ‘Ibar’ indicates a valley with a river, ‘Aran’ denotes a normal valley.

Dani Aranzubia: Aran (valley) zubi (bridge).

Other interesting names

The Basque custom of adopting names which describe the location of a home has left us with an abundance of fascinating and charming names.

Julen Agirrezabala: There is a lack of historical record as to the origins of ‘Agirre’ but many theories state it comes from the word ‘ageri’, which can mean ‘visible’,‘uncovered’ or 'a clearing'. This has led to the belief that it could refer to a home which lies in a type of clearing on top of a hill or in a forest.

Andoni Zubizarreta: Zubi (bridge) zahar (old) eta (many).

Gorka Guruzeta: Gurutze (cross) eta (many).

Aitor and Gaizka Larrazabal: Larra (meadow) zabal (wide).

Naia Landaluze: Landa (countryside) luze (long).

Many surnames are related to the kinds of plants of trees that surrounded the location in question.

Koikili Lertxundi: Lertxun (poplar tree) di (many). In English this could translate to something like 'Poplar tree grove'.

Santiago Urkiaga: Urki (birch) aga (place of).

Marta Unzue: Huntz (ivy) ue (place).

Of course, we have only been able to explore a small fraction of all the possible Athletic Club player surnames available to us, but nonetheless we hope to have improved your understanding of Euskera, the oldest actively used language in Europe.

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