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Understanding surnames and given names can help you find and identify your ancestors in the records.

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Surnames

Before record keeping began, most people had only one name, such as Giovanni (John). As the population increased, it became necessary to distinguish between individuals with the same name. The problem was usually solved by adding descriptive information. Giovanni became Giovanni Fabro (John the smith), Giovanni di Matteo (John son of Matthew), Giovanni Basso (John the short), or Giovanni di Napoli (John from Napoli). At first, surnames applied only to one person and not to the whole family. After a few generations, these names were passed from father to child.

Surnames developed from four major sources and one minor one. The four major ones are surnames based on patronymics, occpations, descriptions or nicknames, and geography; the one minor one is surnames assigned to abandoned children:

Patronymic

These surnames are based on a parent’s name, such as Giovanni d’Alberto (John son of Albert).

Occupational

These surnames are based on the person’s trade, such as Pietro Contadino (Peter Farmer).

Descriptive or Nickname

These surnames are based on a unique quality of the person, such as Andrea Amabile (Andrew Amiable).

Geographical

These surnames are based on a person’s residence, such as Maria Pugliese (Mary from Puglia).

Surnames for Abandoned Children

Abandoned infants had surnames assigned to them by the foundling homes where they were abandoned and often a new surname may be assigned to the infant when placed with a wet nurse in a foster family. For more on this, see here.

Surnames - nobility and wealthy land owners

Surnames were first used by the nobility and wealthy land owners. Later they were used by merchants and townspeople and eventually by the rural population. This process took between two and three centuries. In Italy the practice was mostly established by the 1400s.

Women’s Surnames

Women are referred to by their maiden name in most documents.

Alias Surnames

In some areas of Italy, individuals may have taken a second surname. In records this second surname may be preceded by the word detto, vulgo, or dit. This practice was used to distinguish between different branches of the same family, especially when the families remained in the same town for generations.

Grammatical Effects on Italian Names

With a few exceptions, names in Italy follow the same pattern as the rest of the language: masculine names end in o, and feminine names in a.

Italian genealogical records may be in Italian or Latin and occasionally in German or French. Your ancestor’s name could be in Latin on the birth record, in Italian on the marriage record, and in Latin again on the death record. Names are often spelled quite differently when translated into different languages.

Italian Latin English
Elisabetta Elisabetha Elisabeth
Giovanni Joannes John
Guiseppe Josephus Joseph
Di Andrea Andrei Andrews or son of Andrew

The following book translates given names into 23 different European languages (including English):

  • Janowowa, Wanda, et al. Sownik Imion (Dictionary of Names). Wroclaw: Ossoliski, 1975. (FHL book EUROPE REF 940 D4si; film 1181578 item 2; fiche 6000839.)

Given Names

Italian given names are often derived from Biblical names, such as Giuseppe (Joseph) or from the names of a saint, such as Francesco (Francis).

When baptized, children were usually given several given names. Some of these may be the names of parents or other relatives. In some areas, names given at baptism were not the same names that the child used during life. Civil registration records may only list a child’s first given name, but church records (such as baptism registers) would list all of the given names.

In Italy a particular naming pattern was very common and continues to be used in some regions today. The following pattern may be helpful in researching family groups and determining the parents of the mother and father:

  • The first male child was often named for the father’s father.
  • The second boy was often named for the mother’s father.
  • The first female child was often named for the father’s mother.
  • The second girl was often named for the mother’s mother.

If a child died, often the name was given to the next child of that gender.

Several books discuss Italian names and their meanings. Some of them also indicate the cities or regions where many names are most common. One such book is:

  • Fucilla, Joseph G. Our Italian Surnames. Evanston, Illinois: Chandler’s, Inc., 1949. (FHL book EUROPE 945 D4f.)

External Links

Italian Surnames:

Italian Personal Names:


 

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  • This page was last modified on 17 September 2012, at 17:39.
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