Italian Names (or A Rosa By Any Other Name)

Generally speaking, there are three main categories of Italian names: Roman, religious, and “innovative”. Most of them have both a masculine and a feminine version (which I’ll divide here with a slash as in Franceso/a).

It’s hard to think of anything funny to say about the Romans. They are not known for their sense of humor.  So, I’ll just quickly list a few names drawn from history: Adriano/a, Cesare/Cesarina, Claudio/a, Flavio/a, Giulio/a, Giuliano/a, Marcello/a, Marco, Massimo, Remo, Romolo. Just about any emperor will do except Nerone, for obvious reasons. Mothers everywhere shudder at the thought. (I did, however meet a woman named Nerina – not a common name – but she was not a nice person.) A lot of names are simply Latin (or even Greek) words, often Italianized. Candida, Eros, Flora, Linda, Rosa, Sofia, Silvio/a are a few examples.

Another type of name rooted in Roman history is the practice of naming children a number. This was common up until two generations ago among farmers. Why is this? Think about it. They were busy people. When you’re just starting down the road of marital bliss while working in the fields all day and you’re looking forward to about fifteen babies, do you have the time to go out and buy a book about naming your next little joy? Do you even know where a bookstore is? Or frankly, is there one? No. So you name them in the order they come out: Primo/a, Secondo/a, Quinto/a, Sesto/a, Settimio/a. A strange practice, perhaps, but don’t knock it. It keeps writing your will simple and clear.

Let’s turn to religious names now. First, we start with the big fish: Maria, the mother, Anna, the grandmother, and Giuseppe, the nice guy who didn’t complain. (Some parents, just to be on the safe side, name their little girls Anna Maria or, if they get things backwards, then Marianna. Tag on a Giuseppina as a middle name and you’re set.) There’s also the usual angelic suspects: Gabriele/Gabriella, Michele/a, and Raffaello/a – or more generically, Angelo/a. More complex is Annunziata for women, or in a short form for both men and women Nunzio/a. Then there is Nazzareno, the place where it all began. Let’s not forget Matteo, Marco, Luca, Giovanni/a – the fellows who wrote it all down. Pietro and Paolo/a, who built the Holy City. Maddalena, who provided the psychological support. Each of the disciples (Stefano/ia, Tomaso, etc.) are remembered, of course (except for one. Nobody names their little darlings Juda. Maybe in Japan there’s Judo, but I wouldn’t know about that.)

Then there’s the Infinite List of Saints: Antonio/a/Antonietta, Barbara, Benedetto/a, Catarina, Francesco/a, Giacomo, Giorgio/a, Lucio/a, Nicola/Nicoletta, Rita, Vincenzo/Vincenzina – and my personal favorite: Valentino/a.

One religious name you might have noticed is missing: Jesus, or in Italian, Jesu. Now the Hispanic cultures don’t seem to have any problem naming their children after Himself, but the Italians just don’t go so far. Why is that? I don’t know, and the one with the best answer gets a free ciauscolo.

Ninety percent of my relatives (457 at last count) have religious names. In a typical Italian family, at least one, if not both, the grandmothers are named Maria. Both mine were. Many of the uncles will be named Giuseppe. There will be a few women cousins named Nunzia and at least one nephew named either Benedetto or Francesco. So all my husband has to do when another uncle pops by unexpectedly is to say, “O ciao Giuseppe – come va?” Only about 1 out of 5 times does he get a funny look.

Now we turn to “innovative” names. Many of them are drawn from other languages. Brenda, Catia, Cinzia, Elisa, Elsa, Fiordaliso, Gigliola (my sister’s name), Ivana, Loredana, Mia, Mirella, Monia, Renato/a, Wanda. A lot of popular singers have names like this. Basically, the recipe for creating an Italian name is as follows: pick a name, add an “o” or an “a”, or else for some extra Italian flavor, “ino” or “ina”. Very pretty. Lastly, the most courageous can use these two names: Benito and Italia. Let’s just hope they never meet and marry.

There is a whole other category of Italian names which I haven’t mentioned yet. Very mysterious, and they work like a passport: nicknames. In Italian, they are called soprannomi which literally means “above the name”. You find them in every small Italian town where there has been a community life going on for centuries. People identify themselves and each other by their nicknames, not by their legal first or last name. In fact, using the “actual” names can be very confusing to the local people. If you talk about somebody using their real name, nobody knows who you’re talking about!

Not only are individuals themselves identified by that name but so are their descendants. In fact, if I say to the older people in my town my actual name, they will not know who I am. But if I tell them I am the granddaughter of Ficuccio (which was my grandfather’s nickname) then they say, “Ah, now I know who you are.” And then they call me Ficuccia – the feminine form of Ficuccio – and so I become part of the tradition. Not only that, I become a recognized part of the community, rather than just a stranger from who knows where – which is very strange since my family has been here for who knows how long!

Usually, a wife acquires the nickname of her husband, even though in Italy married women keep their maiden names as their legal names. (Surprise! Men don’t acquire their wive’s nicknames! Sorry, it’s still a man’s world in a lot of ways.) So my grandmother, whose real name was Maria Cammertoni, was called Mima de Ficuccio — “Mima of Ficuccio”.

But how did my grandfather become known as Ficuccio? That’s something of a mystery. People’s nicknames come from professions, food, what people like to do, or something about their character (one shoulder bigger than the other, eyes that looked strange, etc.). Now, as for my grandfather, Ficuccio means “Little Fig” and around my house, there are a lot of fig trees. So it could be that he was associated with these figs.

The grandfather of my best friend was named Luigi, but we always called him Lui de Sgnoccie, which means “Louis the Big Drinker.” He had what is called a drinking problem, although the only person who had a problem with his drinking was his wife. She sent him to sleep in the barn while she slept in the nice house. But even so, he had a great sense of humour which everybody except his wife enjoyed. He would stand beneath her window or lie in the street outside her house and sing love songs to remind her of the great times they had had together. But it wouldn’t do any good, she never opened the door. At best she would stand on the terrazza and say “Luigi, you go to sleep.” In the barn, she meant.

The cheapest and least friendly people in my town were actually named Amicucci, which comes from the word for friendly – very ironic. They were all very cheap, so cheap that they became skinny because they didn’t eat well. Probably the only meat they ate was tripe. So we called them Trippalunga which means “Long Tripe”. But because they were cheap, they also became one of the richest families in town. The daughter recently opened her own lingerie store in town, but for the first year she wouldn’t give customers a bag for their purchases – and not because she was an environmentalist either. How embarrassing for the customers! And how cheap of her! Some things don’t get better with the generations.

There was an old farmer who we called Ragni, which means “Spiders”. Not even my mother, who grew up with him, knows his real name. He was a little weird and you never knew what he was going to do – and so, he was like a spider. Whenever I passed by his house as a child with my friends, he would suddenly appear waving his short fat arms above his head and making very loud maoning noises. Everybody could hear him in town. I think he treated us like his chickens. When you want chickens to scatter, you do like Ragni did with us. Why he did this, nobody knows. We certainly were being very careful not to bother him – or his chickens. The worst thing was that my mother would send me to him to get eggs. I would stand in the street above his house, contemplating the situation for a long time, hoping that his wife would appear instead of Ragni. Life can be difficult for a small child in a small town.

There was another neighbor, still alive, who we call Pacchiarotto, which means, to put it nicely, “Fat”. He doesn’t mind, but his wife always gets upset whenever somebody calls him Pacchiarotto. “Don’t call him Pacchiarotto!” she cries out every time. Then there is a whole family called Magnapa, which means “Bread Eaters.” In the old days, people made bread in outdoor ovens and would bake enough for a week. I guess the Magnapa family made enough for two weeks. And my great uncle was called Piombino, “Little Lead”, because he used a piece of lead on a wire to heal children’s sicknesses.

This tradition of nicknames is dying out, but even so it still is powerful. I just thank god my grandfather was known as Ficuccio. It’s not so bad to be known as the granddaughter of “Little Fig”. It’s much better than being known as “Bread Eater” or “Long Tripes”.