December 18, 2012
What's in an Italian Name?
History, Heritage and Humour – Sometimes!
by Terri Favro
My mother never forgave her first Canadian schoolteacher for changing her name. She was five at the time; the memory still rankles at ninety. As one of only a few kids in her neighbourhood to finish high school, she’s proud of the framed diploma on her wall. But recently, she told me that she wanted me to contact St. Catharines Collegiate and demand that they issue a new one bearing her correct Italian name.
I sighed. “You graduated over sixty years ago, Mom. Couldn’t you just let it go?”
“Beh,” responded my mother, adding, “I don’t know why Nonna Rosa let that testadura of a teacher get away with calling me that awful name.”
A good question. My mother’s mother, Rosa Scrocchi, had crossed the ocean four times, almost been lost at sea, and spent six years working in a button factory in Queens before returning to Italy to marry my hot-tempered grandfather. She spoke excellent English, with a heavy New Yawk accent. Nonna was no pushover.
Yet, when the teacher at Prince of Wales School insisted my mother’s name, Fernanda, was “too long, too difficult, too foreign,” Nonna caved in. The teacher turned Mom into Fanny, after the comedienne Fanny Brice. My mother resentfully carried the name around with her for the rest of her life like an ugly purse.
Fanny Scrocchi had plenty of company among the other kids in her neighbourhood who’d also had their names anglicized: Faustobecame Foster, Eufrasia, Fritzie, Alberto, Bud, Albino, Ben, Emilio, Doc.
My Dad’s name, Attilio, was untranslatable, but reminded Canadians of Tillie the Toiler, a Depression-era comic strip character. Dad was stuck with Tillie until his name was whittled down to a single, masculine consonant: T.
When Fanny and T started a family, they tried, at first, to honour tradition by naming their first daughter after her grandmothers and the second for her grandfathers. The traditional approach broke down when my brother Rick was born on the same night Lucille Ball gave birth to Desi Arnaz Junior – known, on I Love Lucy, as “Little Ricky.”
When our family doctor decreed that I would be my mother’s last child, she decided, The hell with it – I’m naming this girl after me. She picked the English version of Fernanda – Fern, but the name went out the window at my baptism when the priest joked: I guess we’ll call this one “Little Fanny.”
Worried about passing her burdensome name on to me, Mom defaulted to my middle name, Teresa-Louise – shortened to Terry-Lou until I decided I didn’t want to sound like a country-western singer and lost the “Lou.” The final “y” changed to an “i” when I was accidentally enrolled in an all-male university residence. The result: my unmusical and ethnically non-specific name, “Terri Favro.”
Times have changed: Canadians now proudly bear names like Giuseppe, Roberto, Giovanna, Emilia, Paolo and Eufemia. These days, Italian first names aren’t just culturally “correct,” they’re cool.
Unlike first names, Italian family names have proven sturdy in the face of mass emigration and misspellings by yawning customs officers. Even my mother’s maiden name – Scrocchi – remained as stubbornly fixed as my Nonno’s taste for cigars, despite mispronunciations like “Scrotchee.”
Italian last names are more varied than those from any other language group, according to blogger Deirdré Straughan who comments on all things Italian at www.beginningwithi.com. Quoting from an article in Corriere della Sera, Straughan points out that Italy is home to more than 350,000 surnames. (According to the genealogical website, www.italygen.com, only about 40,000 names are in active use.) Many are distinctive because they originated from an ancestor’s unusual character trait, personality quirk, or family nickname (soprannome), requiring a certain bravado or self-deprecating sense of humour on the part of their descendents.
Imagine the habits of the forebears who earned soprannomi like Pelagatti (skinner of cats), Mezzasalma (half-cadaver), Scarsi (miserly), or Tosto (stubborn). Some names drip with sarcasm: Moschella (housefly, in the sense of a pest), Merlo (blackbird, for naiveté), Pavoni (peacock, signifying haughtiness), and Guerra (a belligerent individual). Much better to be a Sapienti (wise one), Acquistapace (peacemaker), or Grillo (cricket, for a cheerful person).
Abandoned children received “foundling names,” such as Orfanelli and Trovato, from the nuns who raised them. Esposito was given to infants who had been left to die of exposure. D’Amore quietly implied that the family began with a child born outside of wedlock.
Some names suggest tragic opera: take Tornincasa, a name that comes from ritorna in casa – come back home – given to a boy after the death of a previous boy. For those who prefer comedy, there’s Pittaluga, a nickname for one who steals grapes from a vineyard, and Fumagalli, which according to blogger Straughan, indicates that someone on the family tree was fond of sneaking into chicken coops, filling it with smoke, and making off with the stupefied hens. It’s a wonderful image, even if it implies that one’s ancestors were chicken thieves.
My own family name, Favro, is unusual in its collision of “r” and “v” without a cushioning vowel, as in Favero or Favaro. The “vr” yolking, I’m told by cousins in Italy, advertises my father’s Alpine origins like a flag. Despite the operatic, vibrant and humorous meanings of other Italian names, my name simply means “smith.” Blunt and boring. I’d change it to Fumagalli, but as my Mom would observe: Beh!
Want to know more about Italian names?
Online sources that I consulted for this article offer a wealth of additional information: www.BehindTheName.com, www.beginningwithi.com, www.italygen.com, http://cybercontadino.blogspot.ca/2011/01/sopranome-and-contranome.html
Terri Favro is a Toronto writer and regular contributor to Accenti. Her most recent book is The Proxy Bride (Quattro Books, 2012).