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Etymology of Italian Surnames

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Categories of Surnames

According to their origin, surnames usually belong to one of these main classes:

Patronymics

The widest category, present almost in all cultures, identified a person by his connection with another person, usually his father, more rarely his mother: the father's name with "son" immediately after it in English, or "van", "von" "di" "de" in other European languages, example: Di Giovanni, Johnson; most of these Italian surnames end in -o (masculine name) or in -i derived from a Latin masculine genitive (example: Bernardi means "of Bernardo"). The same origin appears in the preposition "de" or "di" as in De Luca, D'Angelo, Di Francesco. In case of a double name it is possible that the second identified the grandfather, as in Colaianni meaning son of Nicola (Cola), grandson of Giovanni (Ianni).

Most of the surnames derived from Christian names of Latin (Adriani, Cesari, Martini), Greek (Alessandra, Cristofori, Giorgi), Germanic (Bernardi, Carli, Federici), or Hebrew origin (Adami, Baldassarri, Gaspari). Over three quarters of the Italian surnames are of Germanic origin, filtered from Latin; they did not designate the geographical origin of the bearer, but were considered more prestigious.

Toponymics

To identify where a person or family lived or came from, for example: Montagna, Milani, Wood, York.
  • Local area: the surname was associated to a place well known to the community, as for example Fontana, Della Valle, Della Piana, La Porta, Montagna, Montanari, Monti (from the fountain, the valley, the plain, the town gate, the mountains)
  • Geographical origin: this was applied as a consequence of the migrations of people; the place had to be known to the community that applied the toponimic, therefore if the individual came from villages nearby, the name of the village was used; if he came from a more remote city, region or country, a more general name was used, like Milani, di Genova, Napolitano, Pugliese, Albanese.

Occupational Surnames

Also defined as epanghelmatico, referring to the activity of an ancestor. The job, especially an artisan's job in a small village, was possibly held by only one person or family, so that the profession was added to the Christian name, for example Barbieri (barber), or Ferrari (=smiths). The activity was often also shown with a typical object or animal connected to the profession, as Farina or Forni for a baker, Zappa for a farmer, Tenaglia or Martelli for a carpenter. These surnames are common also in other languages, as can be seen from the examples below.
  • Fabbri, Ferrari, Ferri ("fabbro ferraio") corresponding to Smith, Schmidt
  • Sarti ("sarto") corresponding to Schneider, Snyder, Taylor.
  • Molinari, Monari ("mugnaio") corresponding to Miller, Müller.
  • Calzolari, Calligari, Scarparo (calzolaio, scarparo), corresponding to Schuhmacher, Cobbler.

Nicknames

A nickname was often associated to some features of the personality or appearance, at times ironical, and came to identify an individual and his descendants, as can be seen in the examples below. In many Italian villages, where very few surnames became common in the centuries, a non-official nickname was used to identify family branches whose relationship was actually no more remembered, and worked almost as a second surname, that could often come to replace the original.
  • The color or form of the hair or skin, or physycal trait (some of the most common surnames have this origin) as in Rossi, Ruscio, Rubeo, Morelli, Ricci, Biondi, Corti and Bassi, Bassetti (short stature), Piccoli (small), Grossi (big), Testa (head), Longhi. These nicknames might also have a joking or moral connotation as Bellomo (=handsome man), Quattrocchi (four eyes, possibly because of glasses, or meaning very cunning), Guerci (bad-sighted, one-eyed), Sordi (deaf).
  • More creatively, an ironic and satirical, or even derogatory nickname was made with a verb and an object indicating an action typical of the individual as in Pappalardo (that who eats lard), Bevilacqua (water drinker), Fumagalli (chicken thief), Magnavacca (beef eater), Squarcialupo (wolf killer), Ammazzalorso (bear killer), Frangipane (bread breaker).
  • other surnames may have come from the personality or moral features, as Selvaggi (Savage), Allegretti (happy people), Bruscki (non-diplomatic).
  • Names of animals could serve to the same purpose of a character or physical feature, so there were Mosca (a fly, someone small or annoying), Cavallo (someone big, noisy or with large front teeth), Gatto (cat), Grillo (cricket), Lepore (hare, possibly from the orofacial cleft, which might be also genetic)), Volpe (fox).
  • A nickname may have come also from some feature in the coatsofarm of the family, like De Argento (silver), Mazzei (club), D'Arco (bow), Tremonti (three mountains, that often appear in coat of arms).

Well-Wishing Surnames

These surnames included a promise for the future, usually in the positive, and were common also for foundlings.
  • auspicious surnames: Centanni (may you live one hundred years), Abbondante (wealth), Bonaventura (=good luck);
  • gratifying surnames: Benvenuti (welcome), Bencivenga (may good come to us), Diodato (given by God, Nascimbene (well born)
  • theophoric surnames: Diotaiuti (may God help you), Teodori, Amadio (God loving), Laudadio
  • apotropaic surnames: these expressed a negative trait to obtain the opposite benefit, a scaramantic wish, since in ancient popular beliefs, still quite widespread in certain extra-European cultures, a beautiful name could excite the envy of evil spirits and their revenge on the poor child, while a bad name would protect precisely from these risks. Some examples are Afflitto, Brutto, Malatesta, Maltivenga (may evil come to you), Della Morte (belonging to death).

Surnames of Foundlings

This kind of surnames was chosen by religious institutions or, after the establishment of Civil Records, by the civil officer; they vary according to places and traditions. At first, many foundlisgs received surnames clearly denoting their illegitimate origin as Esposito in Campania, Proietti in central Italy, Trovato in Sicily, Casadio and Degli Esposti in Emilia Romagna, or also D'Ignoti, D'Incerti, Spurio, Esposti, Proietti, Trovatelli, Trovato, Ventura. Often, especially in cities where orphanages were present, the surname showed a link to the institution, that would usually provide them with a minimum education, a trade, and often also guarantee a dowry to the girls: Degli Innocenti and variations from the "Spedale di Santa Maria degli Innocenti" in Tuscany, or Colombo in Lombardy from the orphanage of Santa Caterina della Ruota which had a dove as its symbol, or Casadei, Casadidio, Casagrande, Casasanta.

In the early 19th century, a new ethical sensitivity suggested to hide this explicit transparency, to no longer burden the foundling with the humiliation resulting from a past which was not his or her fault. In 1811 Gioacchino Murat abolished the ancient use of the Kingdom of Naples to call almost all foundlings Esposito or Proietto, giving the administrators of shelters the decision to establish the surnames. In 1825 a law established that every foundling should receive an individualized surname, which created the problem for the institutions to invent a fictional surname. Many surnames were chosen out of the whim of the moment, as a reference to the physical aspect of the child or the place or month of finding or to historical facts or contemporary news. In any case, it was necessary to find a surname that no one else had in that place. In the late 19th century the custom was introduced to give foundlings surnames of non-residents but existing in other areas of Italy, of flowers, months, of famous people, or invented on the spot.