What’s In A (Sur)Name?

There are a number of things that make us stand out as a community. One of those things is our surnames! Parsi Times Writer, Hoshang Sethna explores an amusing account of how most of us got our surnames.

Hoshang Sethna copyIt’s an accepted fact that many of us have some of the most unusual and funny surnames. In fact, we would hold the record for having the longest surnames, were it not for those interminable South Indian surnames! The longest Parsi surnames, so far include Sodawaterbottleopenerwala (25 alphabets) and Workingboxwalla (15 alphabets), which are currently still in use by some Parsi families. Similarly, two of the shortest surnames are Pir and Dick.

Parsi surnames are known to start from every letter of the alphabet table from A to Z, but we have still to discover an original Parsi surname starting with ‘Q’ – all those astrological/numerological adjustments notwithstanding!

Most of us derived our surnames from our professions – jobs we held or businesses we owned – as also based on the ownership of lands, properties or titles. Some of our surnames based on our professions are Printer, Writer, Reader, Dukandar, Plumber, Presswalla and Shroff (originally ‘Saraf’). A majority of our forefathers worked in the Railways as they were the preferred choice by British during the pre-Independence era. Surnames derived during this period include Driver, Guard, Fitter, Linesman, Mukadam, Engineer, Marker, etc.

A lot of our surnames were also a result of geography! We adopted the names of the places – village, town, city – that we hailed from, and hence the surnames – Udwadia, Surty, Sanjana, Dehnugara, Bulsara, Nargolia, Taraporewala, Billimoria, Kalyaniwalla, Thanewalla. In lighter vein, though my own surname, ‘Sethna’, seems to have a rather mischievous reputation, please be rest assured, once and for all, that it was derived from the small village ‘Seth’ in Gujarat!

Many famous surnames today are those recalling some of the most successful brands, nationally and globally – like Tatas, Godrej, Wadia, Rustomji, Shapoorji, Pallonji, etc. Certain Parsi surnames immediately disclose the religious status of the person (Dastur or Behdin) – like Mirza, Madona, Dastoor, Katrak, Khodaiji, Bhada, Unwalla, Pavri, Katila, Bajan, Bachha, Karanjia, etc.

Some of us took on the names of our forefathers or fathers as our official surnames, like Dadabhoy Navroji, Jamshedi Jivanji, Edul-Faram, Fanibanda and Edulkaka. To blend in with the Indian flavor, many Parsis adopted surnames similar to Hindu (mainly Gujarati and Marathi) surnames – like Javeri, Zaveri, Parekh, Mistry, Desai, Mukadam and Seth. Some of us simply shorten or westernize our surnames like Sarbhanwala becomes Sarbh.

As William Shakespeare’s famous line goes, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”, so it is of us Parsis – immaterial of our surnames, we all equally add to the pride and the sweetness of our grand Zoroastrian community!


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