Wednesday, September 15, 2010

What’s in a name?

The etymology of Italian surnames is a fascinating topic to which my humble blogging could never do justice. Nor do I presume to be an expert on the topic, but for the casual family historian there are some basics I’ve learned over the years that may help you understand the origin of your Italian family name.

It wasn’t until the 15th century that the use of surnames began to take hold in the area that became Italy – and throughout Europe for that matter. As the human population exploded after the plague ridden Middle Ages, the use of a surname became essential, as you might guess, in order to distinguish one individual from another. The Council of Trent decreed what was really the first official act that required the recording of an individual with both their Christian name and surname in the parish registers throughout Europe.

But where did these names come from?

Probably the most common origin of the surname in Italy can be attributed to patronymics, where an individual came to be known through his connection to another person, usually his father. Therefore, Giovanni, the son of Antonio, might be called “Giovanni di Antonio.” Surnames such as “de Bartolomeis” (son of Bartolomeo) “Perrone” (son of Piero) and “Gerardi” (son of Gerardo) all reflect the given name of some remote ancestor.

Other Italian surnames are derived from a geographical reference. For example, Anthony of the town of Padua might have been called “Antonio di Padova,” or James who lived on the little hill might have been known as “Giacomo Collina.” Another common surname origin is related to an occupation, such as Tortarolo (miller of flour), Ferraro (smith/blacksmith), Vaccaro (herdsman), Pastore (shepherd), etc.

Still other Italian surnames originate in a nickname that was given to an ancestor. Giuseppe with a red beard may have become known as “Giuseppe Rossi,” or Marco with curly hair may have been called “Marco Ricci.” These surnames could derive from any physical or personality trait. The soldiers of the local nobleman “Bonifacio il Vasto,” who controlled the territory in the area that is now Giusvalla and the surrounding towns, became known by the nickname “i Bonifacini” - or individually - “Bonifacino.” Due to the many soldiers who were known by this nickname, the surname Bonifacino became quite common in the various towns throughout the Val Bormida.

Other Italian family names originated in the custom of giving an invented surname to children that were born out of wedlock or abandoned by their parents. These surnames were sometimes created by the child’s mother, or by the priest who recorded the baptism or the official who recorded the birth in the town hall. Different towns had different traditions when it came to naming their illegitimate or abandoned babies. Some towns named the babies after the month they were born in (Aprile, Ottobre, etc.), other towns gave the babies floral sounding names (Mirto, Fiorello, Mela). Surnames such as Esposito (exposed) and Trovato (found) were sometimes given to abandoned babies.

Dozens of surnames often evolved from the “root” name, so a simple surname like “di Giovanni” could take on many forms: Giovannoni, Giovanelli, Giova, Giannoni, Zunino, etc.

A vitally important consideration for the family historian is the distinction of unrelated families who share a common surname. Just like Anglo surnames such as “Johnson,” “Baker” and “Miller,” many Italian surnames are quite common and therefore it would be completely inaccurate to assume that two people with the same surname, even those living in a small town like Giusvalla, are related. The only way to prove that any two people are related is through genealogical research that documents a paper trail for both individuals back to a common ancestor.

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