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  • Writer's pictureJonn Galea

Why are there so many Maltese surnames starting with ‘Bu’?

Updated: Aug 26, 2023

Have you ever noticed that there are quite a few Maltese surnames that start with the syllable ‘Bu’? Let’s take a deeper look.

Over the last eighteen months researching Maltese surnames as a hobby, I’ve started to pick up on certain patterns that recur within their heraldry and etymology (linguistic origin). I've found this connection fascinating and, thinking others might feel the same, I've decided to start sharing them

In this first exploration, I'm looking specifically at surnames that have 'Bu' as a prefix.

The Semitic masters

There are four particular surnames that are intrinsically related in that the syllable 'Bu' means the same thing in all of them. In the case of Buttigieg, Buhagiar, Busittil and Busietta, 'Bu' refers to the Semitic (a)bû, meaning "master, holder, possessor, or father". It is very often used to indicate that a person thrived in a certain endeavour, skill or trade.

With this in mind, Buttigieg is probably the easiest one to decipher if you have an understanding of the Maltese (or Arabic) language since tiġieg means "hens, chickens". It most likely originated from the Siculo-Arabic occupational name (A)bû l-dadjadj(i) referring to a successful breeder of poultry.

Buhagiar is slightly more obscure, but again most of you who have a grasp of Maltese will know that ħaġar refers to "stone". (A)bû l-hadjar(i) was also a Siculo-Arabic occupational name referring to a thriving landlord or a proprietor of a stone quarry.

Then we have Busittil and Busieta, both of which refer to a peer above a number of men. Busittil was sometimes recorded as Busittin through the late-medieval period in Malta, and the surname also surfaces in Sicily. Sittin means "sixty" in Maltese and Arabic, and most likely refers to a "master of sixty men". This title was most likely given to a leader of militiamen who guarded the local coastline.

Though extremely tentative, Busittil may also originate from (A)bû l-stallel, referring to someone who found success in keeping stables.

Busieta, on the other hand, refers to sitta, the number 'six' and may have referred to a father of six or even a master (owner) of six slaves. Unfortunately, I have yet to create the coat of arms for this surname, which features a rather impressive bull rampant in gules (red).

Some of you may have realised that the surname Abdilla may somehow be connected here, however, in this case, the prefix Ab is more likely to refer to the Semitic abd meaning "servant", as opposed to (a)bû. Abdullâh, in Arabic, means “servant of God”.

European Origins

Many long-established Maltese surnames have their roots in either Semitic or Latin and Greek (though they all tend to have connections with Sicily), we will now switch our focus to the latter two.

Bugeja tends to have a foot in both camps. It is most likely connected to the Algerian city of Bejaia (Bougia in Italian), which was renowned for the manufacture of wax candles (bougies). Indeed a bugia refers to "a candle with a saucer-like base".

Like so many Maltese surnames, the meaning behind Bugeja is anything but clear-cut, with potential origins coming from two separate Sicilian occupational names: Bug(g)ea, which is probably from the Greek boukaios meaning "cowherd, herdsmen"; and Buggia, from the Italian bbuggia, meaning a "poacher's bag".

Also of Italian origin is Bugelli, which is most probably a form of the surname Bucelli, itself from bucello meaning "calf" and probably refers to husbandmen or herdsmen.

And finally, we have Burlò, which is most likely of Siculo-Greek origin referring to burlos , meaning "mad, insane". It may also originate from the French surname Burlot, from burle, meaning "practical joke, mocking remark" and may refer to a foolish person or a prankster.

... The 'new' kids on the block

So far we have discussed predominantly traditional and recognisable Maltese surnames, but there are certainly other surnames starting with 'Bu' that have established themselves on the Maltese islands more recently.

Amongst these are patronymics originating from Britain, such as Buckle, Bundy, Burke and Butler. As well as surnames from Italy, such as Buontempo and Buongiovani. All have been documented on the Maltese islands for a century or more.

Since the traditional Maltese coats of arms we are familiar with were mostly created throughout the eighteenth century, we do not tend to have local examples of heraldry for these surnames.

Or at least not yet! There is nothing to stop any family from creating a personal coat of arms and starting new traditions for future generations to explore and enjoy.

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