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Armenian Last Names
Most Armenian names end in "ian" or "yan, "meaning the "son of". So for example, just like "Peterson" means "son of Peter" in English, Petrosian or Bedrosian would mean the same exact thing, since Petros/Bedros means Peter in Armenian, and -ian at the end means the same as son.
Some Diaspora Armenians have changed these endings to blend in their host societies. Today in Turkey "oglu" often replaces "ian," while Russian Armenians may change the endings to "ov"; e.g., Garry Kasparov, Sergei Parajanov. A name ending in "ian" is not always exclusively Armenian, since the ending can also be occasionally found in names in Irish, Persian, English, Philippine and some other cultures.
Armenian last names generally fall into five specific categories: Aristocracy, Parent, Geography, Occupation or Trait.
The ancient Armenian aristocracy ("Nakharar" class) was derived from Parthian-Persian stock and many of their names ended in "uni" or "ooni." Most of these families were destroyed over the centuries but some still survive today; e.g., Sasuni, Rshtuni.
Many Armenian names are derived from the first names of an ancestor; e.g. Davidian, "son of David," Bedrosian, "son of Bedros," Krikorian, "son of Krikor/Grigor." Until the 19th century, virtually all first names had a religious origin, so most of those last names are also religious.
Some last names are based on geographic origin and end in "lian"(Turkish) or "tsian" (Armenian). Typical examples are Sivaslian "from Sivas ," Urfalian "from Urfa" and Vanetzian "from Van." These names were typically given to an immigrant who migrated from a different region of Armenia . Obviously everyone living in Marash would not call himself or herself "Marashlian".
Most last names were taken from the professions of an ancestor. These names frequently originated with the tax collectors who needed to identify all individuals for tax purposes. Typical examples are Najarian "son of a carpenter," Arabian "son of a wagon/teamster," Vosgerichian "son of a goldsmith." Many of these occupations are not Armenian, since the tax man (typically a Moslem Turk, Persian, Arab, etc.) would use his own native word for the occupation; e.g., the name Boyajian is based on the Arab/Turkish term "boyaji" "one who dyes."
The most confusing and curious names are those based on some trait of an ancestor. Typical examples are Topalian "son of the cripple," Dilsizian "son of the tongueless one," or Sinanian "son of the spearpoint." Many of the origins of these names are unclear unless one understands the original context. As an example, Dilsizian indicates that an ancestor had his tongue cut out by the Turks for using the Armenian language, while the term "Sinan" was a slang term applied to somebody either with a very erect military-like carriage or who was "hung like a horse."
Some of these traits are not physical, but rather reflect personality or social status; e.g., Melikian "son of the king" or Harutunian "son of the resurrection." The name Harutunian could be based on an ancestor named Harutune (so-named because he was born around Eastertime), or adopted by a convert to Protestantism to show his status as a "born-again Christian."
Many last names today have been shortened or modified to aid pronunciations by non-Armenians; e.g., the name "Mugerditchian/Mkrtichian" becomes "Mugar," "Husseniglian," becomes "Hewsen," "Aznavourian" becomes "Aznavour" and "Samourkashian" becomes "Samour." These abbreviated names often drop the ian" ending, and are not immediately identifiable as being Armenian to an outsider.
Names with the prefix "Der" or "Ter" (the former used by Western Armenians and the latter by Eastern) show that one of the ancestors was a "Der Hayr" a married parish priest), once a position of great social status among Armenians; e.g., Der Bedrosian, Ter Petrosian.
Eastern vs. Western
The name categories of Occupation and Trait can differ significantly between Eastern Armenians and Western Armenians, since the eastern names often have Persian, Georgian or Russian roots, while the western names may have Turkish, Arab, or Greek roots. In addition, most Armenians from the former Soviet Union spell their last name with a -yan (յան), which reflects the new spelling that was adopted by Armenians in the Soviet Union. Most Western and Persian Armenians spell their last names with an -ian (եան) to reflect a French transliteration of the original spelling. A common exception in the west is when the ian suffix is to follow a vowel, it is instead spelled with a yan to prevent three vowels in a row, eg. Saroyan.
The study of Armenian Names is a fascinating exercise, since virtually every aspect of the culture is reflected in names. There have been extensive studies of Armenian names in the Armenian language, but little has appeared in English and many Armenians (born outside of Armenia) do not understand the meaning of their own names.
Original source for this article is Gary Lind-Sinanian of ALMA.