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Today, most Western names consist of one or more given names combined with a family name, or surname. Surnames are a relatively recent phenomenon in human history. Nobility and landowners may have had identifying names besides their given names, but ordinary residents of most countries didn’t use surnames until they were required by law, some not until the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Combining the ‘given’ name with a surname identified an individual within a family, and resulted in the ‘John Smith’ type of name we’re now familiar with.
Many surnames were used by our ancestors so long ago that after generations of being passed on in the family, no one can remember why the surnames were originally applied, or what they meant. Many areas, including Scandinavia, Spain and Ireland had naming conventions for surnames; traditions similar to but often more complex than the customs for choosing given names. These conventions could differ widely between countries.
Early surnames, in any locality, identified a person by some physical attribute, such as Long, Short or White; or an occupation like Butcher, Baker or Cooper; or a place of origin – Calabrese, Palermo or Licata. Some were based on parentage or ancestry – Johnson, Svenssen, Di Carlo, Di Francesco, etc. Knowing the meanings of surnames can even help to identify ancestors who came to America after a couple of generations in another country, where they may have changed their surname to the local language, to ‘fit in’.
Surnames derived from a person’s occupation, in Italian, English, French and German, include:
Molinaro: (Miller, Meunier, and Müller)
Macellaro: (Butcher, Boucher, and Fleischman)
Ferraro: (Smith (from ‘blacksmith’), Forgeron, and Schmied or Schmidt)
Furnaro: (Baker, Boulanger, and Bäcker)
Surnames derived from a person’s appearance, in Italian, English, French and German, include:
Russo: (Redd, Laroux, and Rotkopf)
Bellanca: (White, Leblanc, and Weiss)
Bruno: (Brown, Lebrun, Braun)
Nero: (Black, Le Noir, Schwarz)
Luongo: (Long, Long, Lang)
Piccolo: (Little, Petit, Klein)
If you’re searching for an ancestor from Italy, remember that not just the given name, but the surname as well, may have been anglicized. For example, if your Italian grandfather went by the name Anthony Smith, you may have to search passenger manifests and Italian birth records for Antonio Ferraro, and so on.
The naming conventions in Italy and especially in the Mezzogiorno often resulted in numerous people in a town or community with exactly the same name, both given name and surname. Methods were adopted to differentiate between such individuals. For example, there might be three boys in the same town, all named Pietro Coniglio; one short, one fat, and one red-haired.
They might be nicknamed lo Curto, lo Grosso and lo Russo; or Shorty, Fatty, and Red. These nicknames would then result in their names being given as Pietro Coniglio lo Curto, Pietro Coniglio lo Grosso, and Pietro Coniglio lo Russo. Often, to identify the offspring and descendants of these individuals, the nickname was applied to them as well. In some cases, the original surname might be dropped, so that the nickname actually became the surname. So the grandson of Pietro Coniglio lo Grosso might be known, commonly and officially, as Pietro Grosso.
These descriptive names are called soprannomi (‘nicknames’) or ‘nciurie (‘insults’), because they were often derogatory. In many towns, a man’s associates might not even know his actual surname.
Unfortunately, the evolution of nicknames into accepted surnames is not well documented. But knowing a person’s nickname can be very helpful if you visit his birthplace, where living descendants or neighbors might recall the connection. Even if the nicknames were not officially adopted, several subsequent generations of a family may have used it.
As an aside, many American descendants of Italian and Sicilian ancestors have (probably unwittingly) continued this charming custom. I’d venture that many of us know people referred to by names like ‘Charlie the Hat’, ‘Joe Nerves’, ‘Sammy Sideways’, and so on.