Sunday, August 18

Et tu Brute? Italian names & their creative origins

Every so often someone brings up the conundrum of the Chinese population and that notwithstanding billions of people on the planet, almost all of them share something like the same 25 last names.  I'm not sure if they have White Pages phone books there, but, it would seem to me that'd they be a terrific waste of time consulting.  Back in Italy, many of us get a big kick instead of the variation in last names you may come across - the total numbering over 300.000.  I have penned a whole post of some of my favorites here.
But, I've since come across a brilliant book (sorry, in Italian) by Enzo Caffarelli entitled, Tell me your name & I'll tell you Why that is [Dimmi come ti chiami e ti dirò perché].  This urban anthropologist has painstakingly mapped out most of the last names found throughout the country and their curious (or far more banal) origins.  He even takes on some of my favorites.  Here's a brief recap: [note: my info comes from an exceptional write-up by - no jest here - Paolo Di Paolo in Il Messaggero but unfortunately, the article - like most of their news - is not easily accessible thru search engines.]
Picture from Giò Magazine
- Who'd have thunk it that Rossi - the most common name in Italy - stems from the red-haired & most likely freckled skin of the person who bore it?  Talk about adding insult to injury: In Italy, red-heads are already thought to be off their rocker.
- Some names [and I find it interesting that the Italian cognome = last name comes from the Latin for nickname] showed just how thrilled the new parents were in the arrival of another mouth to feed:  Malavolta - Aggravio - Maldonato - Nontivoglio (this last name meaning, I don't want you just in case there was any further debate).
- If you ended up with a bit of a lousy last name like Suino or Lardo (Swine - Lard), you can rest easy knowing that they were just shortened versions of other names like Ansuino or Ilardo.  Why in the world that happened is again anyone's guess.
- Some names like my favorites, Bevilacqua or Mangipane are action verbs (DrinkWater or EatBread) while others, like Grillo or Leone come from the animal world.  Still others, like Gambarotta or Zoppi (Brokenleg - Limp) note physical attributes.
Running down the list, it's no wonder that Italy, made it almost impossible to change your name.  Authorities were most likely worried that names would take a turn for the worse.  There was a case in which the parents, clearly fans of the Addams' Family, were not allowed by the courts to call their baby Venerdì - Friday.  I wonder what they would have said to Gwyneth Paltrow and baby Mela.
Greco, Romano, Russo, Messina, Ferrari...It's not hard to guess where these stem from.  Regardless, I guess I'll have to read the book to find out how those rare redheads came to have the most common name in Italy; perhaps instead of being nutty, they had highly fertile nuts; thus the personal slurs...And as for China? Well, Hu has made the list of the most popular first names here.

More hilarious Italian last names - Click Here

other sources:
The most popular names in Italy as reported by the White Pages [tho' this can no longer be a trusted source since most people no longer have land lines and no one uses the White Pages anymore...] CLICK HERE
Map of Italian last names 
Link to book

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