Thursday, 31 March 2011

Mr. I-Love-You and Mrs. So-Help-Me-God

Since I moved to Italy I've started wondering about all the strange surnames in this country. In my own country (Norway) we have surnames like Smith, Hansen, Olsen or Brun (Brown), while here in Italy you can encounter Mr. I-Love-You (Bentivoglio), Ms. Four-Eyes (Quattrocchi) or Mrs. Embrace-The-Wind (Abbracciavento). Or what about Mr. Sideways (Traverso) or Mrs. Lucky (Fortunati)..?!

Before, I thought most Italians were named Rossi, Bruno, Pavarotti or Bocelli, but after living here for some time I've come to realize my misconception. One of my neighbours is called Mrs. Happy (Felice) and another one Mr. Tickets (Biglietti). And one day when I was walking my dog I came across the office of Doctor In-Love (Innamorato).

I became more and more curious about these strange, Italian surnames up to the point where I scribbled down all the surnames that flickered over the tv-screen after watching a film, so after a very short time I had a very long list. In the end I decided to try to find out as much as I could about the origin of today's surnames.

Here's what I found:. Around the 5th Century a person had only one name (First Name). After the fall of the Roman Empire they added  nicknames related to a persons appearance or they used the name of the place where they were born as the surname, like Leonardo Da Vinci which quite simply means Leonardo of Vinci.

Between the 5th and the 11th Century the population increased to the point where it was necessary to be able to distinguish between people with similar first names, but also to make a connection between those who belonged to the same family. And so the Surname as we know it today was born. To make a surname they used the first name of the mother or the father with just a little "twist" to it or maybe a nickname, nationality or the name of the place they were born or their profession. Venice was the first city to start using surnames around year 1200. Other areas followed a Century later and rich people were the first to adopt this practise. From 1564 churches were obliged by Law to register all newborn  babies with both first- and surnames to prevent marriage between relatives. And from that time started the tradition of handing down surnames from generation to generation.

Some of the names derived from the position a person held in the society, like Conte (Earl) or he was named after his trade, Panetta (Baker) or Barbieri (Barber).

Some surnames were originally nicknames based upon a person's appearence. Here are some examples:
Cavallo = Horse
Mosca = Fly
Pesce = Fish
Volpe = Fox
Grillo = Cricket
Traverso = Cross/across/sideways (often used about a person who was cross-eyed)
Gambacorta = Short-leg
Testa = Head
Mancuso (from mancino) = Lefthanded
Vacca = Cow

Abandoned babies were given surnames like:
Di Dio = From God
Trovato = Found
D'Ignoto = Unknown

It seems that some parents go out of their way to give their children first names that "matches" the last name...     

Orso Bruno = Brown-Bear
Dino Sauro = Dino Saurus
Nella Giacca =In the-Jacket

There is a long list of funny as well as insulting surnames and I want to give you a little taste of what you can expext to find if you browse an Italian telephone directory.

Chicchirichì = Cock-a-doodle-doo
Ingannamorte =Fool-death
Senzaquattrini = Without-money
Bastardo = Bastard
Inutile = Useless
Puzzolente = Stinking
Catarro = Catarrh/phlegm
Forfora = Dandruff
Portafoglio = Wallet
Cinquemani = Five-hands
Diomaiuto = (So)Help-Me-God
Cetriolo = Cucumber
Pagliaccio = Clown
Pidocchio = Louse
Bavoso = Dribbling/slobbery
And then there's Gratis (For-Free) ... Who on earth would like to be called Mrs. Gratis?!?

By the way, I've found the surname I would like to have for myself. I would like to be called Signora Buonvino or rather Mrs. Good-wine, because like wine I get better (I hope...) as the years go by!

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I'm researching character names for a script and your explanation of where the Italian names derived from historically was very helpful (and hilarious). Grazie!

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