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Catalan Names: Europe's Secret Gems

Catalan Names: Europe's Secret Gems

Looking for an off-the-radar European baby name? Catalan names are sweet and simple.

Catalonia, the region in north-east Spain of which Barcelona is the capital, is blessed with a warm climate, world-renowned cuisine and a distinct culture and language – and of course names.

I moved to Barcelona 15 years ago. I expected Catalan to be a regional language spoken mostly by the elderly or those living in small towns. In fact, there are almost 10 million speakers, located not only in Catalonia itself but in neighbouring regions Valencia, Aragon and the Balearic Islands, as well as Southern France.

Catalan is derived from Latin, like Spanish and other Romance languages. It shares many words with Italian, French and Occitan, though Catalan pronunciation may not be intuitive to speakers of those languages.

My first job took me into offices all over the city, where I met men called Josep, Xavi, Francesc and Albert and women called Montse, Montse and Montserrat (joking, though it often seemed that way. There were also some called Eva, Eulàlia and Mercè).

Nowadays, name trends have moved on. My children think Josep, the Catalan form of Joseph, is a “strange” name. Parents are increasingly opting for unusual choices, and increased immigration has also diversified the naming pool. Nonetheless, the most popular names for babies these days are dominated by familiar European favorites, often with a local twist.

Popular Catalan Baby Names

In the top ten Catalan boy names, you will find Marc, Jan, Pol, Nil and Pau. Single syllable boy names have been enormously popular in recent years with less common (and less international) choices like Roc (the Catalan form of Rocco), Bruc (“heather”), Blai (Blaise), Ot (Otto), Boi (Baldwin) and Hug (Hugh) also used. Interestingly, this is a trend Catalonia doesn’t share with Spain, where longer names like Alejandro, Manuel and Álvaro rank highly.

Catalan girl names tend to be more familiar, and also more universal, with Júlia, Martina, Maria and Emma popular throughout Spain. Within Catalonia though, local favorites also rank, particularly Ona (a traditional nickname for Mariona and also the word for “wave”), Laia (the nickname for Eulàlia, but now far more popular) and Jana.

There are exceptions: even among Catalan-speaking parents, Spanish Lucía is more popular than the local equivalent Llùcia (pronounced YOO-sia), probably because it’s simply considered more attractive.

These were the top ten names in Catalonia in 2020:

As with most places, there are plenty of local pockets. In my children’s school, most of the top boys’ names are represented several times over but the girls are a more eclectic bunch.

When I was touring schools and sneaking a look at the existing class lists, the most common girls’ name I came across was Jana, which ranked 20 the year those girls were born. And the most popular name among neighbourhood boys appears to be Max, which has also consistently ranked around 20.

Catalan Identity and Naming

Naming a baby in Catalonia, which has not always been part of Spain and which has a strong movement in favor of independence, can be a political decision. Giving your child a Spanish name like Pablo sends a different message than using the Catalan forms Pau or Pol. Even Martí (Catalan) rings different to Martín (Spanish).

Some parents find a workaround with names that are the same in both languages, such as Leo, Victor and Max for boys, or Paula, Elena and Abril for girls. Others are proud to declare their heritage or identity with very regional, very Catalan names like the historical Guifré for a boy or the geographical Queralt (pronounced Kay-RALL) for a girl.

As in the rest of Spain, names from the Basque Country (another region with its own, very different, language) are popular in Catalonia. They include Ainhoa, Aroa and Aitana for girls, and Iker and Aitor for boys.

And as in other regions with distinctive languages, parents must choose between preserving old (sometimes unwieldy) local names and international choices that will blend in globally.

This doesn’t just mean opting for smooth sounds – what do you do with unique letters? Anecdotally, I’ve seen parents worry about the letter ç, as in Vicenç (Vincent) and the unique l·l (ela geminada), as in Sibil·la (Sybil). Will these names make their children’s lives difficult? Will they cause problems with internationally designed IT systems? While many parents have steered clear for just these reasons, others deliberately choose these names from local and cultural pride.

Unisex Catalan Names

Gender-neutral names are uncommon in a language where even nouns have grammatical gender, but there are some. Àlex, Cris and Sasha work, as they do in English. Urgell, a mountainous region in northern Catalonia, is also a given name for girls and boys in some areas. Other place names like Aran and Ares are also used.

Blau, a masculine word for blue that is also a place name, is growing in usage for girls but also fits with name trends for boys. And Pau, though massively popular for boys, can also be used for a girl as it is the feminine noun for “peace.”  

Future Trends

The trend at the moment is very much short and sweet, particularly for boys but also for girls when you compare to the names of the past. A whole generation of women were called Maria-something: Maria Teresa (shortened to Maite), Maria Lluisa, Maria Carme. Nowadays, a young girl is more likely to be Maria, and that’s all.

Even so, some new parents are using what we might call “grandpa names.” I know a young Eugeni (Eugene) and a young Ireneu (an uncommon saint name). My own hunch is that, as in other languages, the search for novelty will drive some parents back to the classics. A little Carme (Carmen) or Dolors (which is currently completely unused) would be charming, and in a decade or so parents might be ready for a little Antoni.

Notable Catalan Names

The following is a list of noteworthy Catalan names. Some are popular now, some are classic or unusual, but many would make a lovely choice in any environment.

Girls

Aloma – a medieval name and also the protagonist of a novel by Catalan writer Mercè Rodoreda, it has the lovely sound of Paloma, without meaning "pigeon".

Ariadna – the heroine of Greek myth has inspired plenty of baby names in the past few decades.

Arlet – pronounced ar-LET. A name of Germanic origin, it was used in the Middle Ages and is popular again now.

Elisenda – There was a famous Queen Elisenda, who also founded Barcelona’s beautiful Monastery of Pedralbes. The emphasis goes on the “sen”, but Eli (pronounced like Ellie) is a common nickname.

Estel – A pared-back version of Estelle.

Eulàlia – eclipsed by Laia but really something special in its own right.

Gal·la – the unusual l·l letter is peculiar to Catalan but pronounced largely the same as in English. Salvador Dalí’s partner and muse was called Gala.

Mar – a nature name (sea) in Spanish and Catalan that proves that simplicity can be beautiful.

Núria – a classic, derived from the name of a valley, that has been popular since the days of Franco's dictatorship when place names were a way of avoiding the rule that all names be in Spanish. Composer Arnold Schönberg gave this name to his daughter, who was born in Catalonia.

Roser – pronounced ru-ZAY. The word for rosebush and the Catalan form of Rosario, this lends itself to the nickname Ru.

Vinyet – vin-YET. Coming from the word for vine, this is an appropriate nature name for wine lovers! 

Xènia – SHAY-nee-a. A nickname for Eugènia with a great deal of visual style.

Boys

(Unless otherwise noted, the stress is on the second syllable.)

Aleix – pronounced Ah-LAYSH, it’s a gentle sounding classic.

Aniol – uncommon liquid-sounding saint name.

Biel – a nickname for Gabriel, popular now in its own right.

Bruc – the word for “heather,” an interesting case of a floral boy name.

Francesc – the Catalan form of Francis, this has been eclipsed by its nickname Cesc in recent years, but the full version has a lovely sound.

Gael – another popular liquid name.

Iu – okay, this Catalan form of Yves/Ives isn’t terribly usable in English, sounding a lot like “ew” but it’s a noteworthy vowels-only example of the trend for micro-names for boys.

Jordi – JOR-dy. An evergreen classic, as Saint George is the patron saint of the area. Sant Jordi day on April 23rd is a popular festival in which the streets fill with book and flower sellers, the traditional gifts that couples exchange.

Manel – traditionally a nickname for Manuel but perfectly usable on its own, this is also the name of one of Catalonia’s most popular bands.

Marçal – Mar-SAL.The melodious Catalan form of Marshall. Marcel is also popular, but the cedilla gives Marçal a bit of extra charm.

Ovidi – Ovid, but also a popular singer-songwriter Ovidi Montllor from the second half of the twentieth century, in the style of Jacques Brel.

Vidal – derived from the Latin word for life-giving, this surname, boy name and occasional girl name is quite literally vital.

About the Author

Emily McBride

Emily McBride is an editor and translator based in Barcelona.