The word “azganun” (Armenian: surname) is translated as “family name” (“azg” in this context means “family”, “anun” means “name”). In the old days, if several Tigrans or several Mhers lived in the same Armenian settlement, they were separated as follows: Tigran, Ashot’s grandson, or Mher, Sahak’s grandson. In other words, they would be distinguished by their grandfathers’ names.
Another no less common way of identifying a person in the ancient Armenian society was the use of nicknames containing an indication of a person’s particularity.
Around the early 1st century AD and the early Middle Ages, a significant part of the Armenian surnames originated from the names given during baptism which came to Armenia together with Christianity. In the 4th century, Armenians adopted Christianity as a state religion.
But the need to have surnames appeared much earlier with the emergence of cities and the development of trade and economic life in Armenia.
The very first officially fixed surnames belonged to the representatives of high society: Artsruni, Amatuni, Mamikonyan, Rshtuni. By tradition, the words “family” (“azg”) or “house” (“tun”) were put in front of noble families’ names. In the Middle Ages, it sounded like the “family of Mamikoyans” or the “house of Artsruni.”
Basically, the names of Armenians came from the name of the most authoritative person in the clan, to whose name suffixes indicating relation were added. In Classical Armenian, it was mostly done with the “-eants” suffix, which was then transformed into “-ents” and “-yants.” Eventually, only “-yan” remained.
The ending “ts”, which for the most part isn’t spread among the Armenians living in Armenia, is preserved in the surnames of Armenians who moved to Russia in the 19th century. In Armenia itself, surnames with “ts” at the end can be heard in Syunik: for example, Adonts, Bakunts, Kalvarents.
In addition to the most common form of the formation of surnames from first names, a part of the Armenian surnames derives from the names of certain professions. For example, when a craft passed from generation to generation, the name of the craft was incorporated into the family’s name.
A talented jeweler received the surname Voskerchyan (“Voskerich” – jeweler), a bricklayer – Kartashyan (“Kartash” – bricklayer), a watchmaker – Zhamagortsyan (“Zhamagorts” – watchmaker). Armenian surnames are also based on the characteristic trait of a person – Chakhatyan (“of a fox”), Karchikyan (“short-statured”).
An interesting feature of some Armenian surnames is the prefix “Melik” which indicates a noble origin (Melik-Sargsyan), as well as “Ter-” (“father”, “Lord”, Ter-Avetikyan) used by clergymen.