Mt. Carmel St. Cristina Society

Italian Surnames

Did you know...

Italy has an estimated 350,000 surnames - thousands more than China, which has only about 3,100 in current use, but 22 times Italy's population. Many surnames have a beautiful sound and meaning such as Angelico, Celestino, Benedetto, or Gioia, but a fair number are funny or insulting and occasionally obscene like: Malfatto (badly made), Methadonna (old woman), Mangiarotti (rat eater), and Ponciani (big belly). Where did these strange names come from? For serveral centuries, people were known only by one or two first names. During the 11th century, as the population of Italy increased, having so many people with the same names created confusion and the last name became necessary. By the 14th century the custom was established to have a full name.

Today many Italian last names fall into the category of nicknames. Some are amusing or even silly like: Bellagamba (beautiful legs), Caporaso (shaved head), Falaguerra (make war), and Pelagatti (skin cats). And in baseball we have Tommy La Sorta (the leaf), Joe Torre (the tower), and John Boccabella (beautiful mouth). Joe Di Maggio's Sicilan name dates back to the 14th century and was an ancestor first name. Antonio Di Stefano searched current telephone directories and some of the names he found were crude and uncomplimentary such as: Culetto (little butt), Troia (slut), and Chiappe (buttocks). But why people withh unflattering names allow them to be recorded in the official records? The truth is that each name has a unique explanation. For example, Malfatto (badly made) was a nickname of a perfectionist, who was quick to judge the work of others. The nickname was also a joke between friends and we would have to be famiar with the local history of all the Italian villages, the regions and all the Italian dialects before concluding that a name is offensive.

As the ancient Romans used to say "Nomen, Omen" - your name is your destiny!