Thursday, February 24, 2011

A Pazzi by any other name . . .

Big Bellies butcher shop.
Tuesday, February 22
While cruising through Italian streets and alleys, I love to look at and say aloud the names on the doorways. So many Italian names have a beautiful sound, and while not all of them have a meaning in today’s language, many of them do have meaning, or at least sound very close to words that have meaning. It is true that in English we have our Millers, Smiths and Sawyers, but Italian surnames are a hundred times more diverse, and I find them fascinating.

Even in America, people of Italian descent gain attention for their names. Texas Rangers catcher Jerrod Saltalamacchia has the distinction of having the longest surname in the history of Major League Baseball. And it doesn’t take Google translation service to figure out the true meaning of pitcher Antonio Bastardo’s name (although his may be of Spanish origin). I once had a student named Salsiccia, which translates as sausage.

The Corriere della Sera reports that Italy has more surnames than any other country, around 350,000, many more than China, though China has 22 times more people. Further, the ten most popular names in Italy account for only 1 percent of the names.
Some of the names I have personally encountered on the streets or in books, with translations provided:
Malfatto—Badly made
Pazzi—Crazy people
Mezzadonna—Half woman
Grassi—Fat people
Ciechi—Blind people
Pancioni—Big bellies
Mangiaratti—Eat rats
Bugiardini—Little liars
Lunatici—Moody people (not lunatics)
Quattrocchi—Four eyes

Of course it is easy for me to laugh at strange surnames, because I have pretty much the coolest one of all, Spadoni, which not only sounds great but means big swords. My grandmother’s name was Seghieri, which the family believes mean sawyers, not quite as swashbuckling but at least very normal. However, there was a branch of the Seghieri family with the hyphenated last name of Seghieri-Bizzarri, which means pretty much what you would guess, bizarre people, or perhaps bizarre sawyers.

Many names are not so much insulting as they are cute or silly, such as these that I found online:
Tagliabue—Ox cutter
Bellagamba—Beautiful leg
Caporaso—Shaved head
Falaguerra—Make war
Acquistapace—Buy peace (perhaps a neighbor of the previously named)
Mezzasalma—Half cadaver
Mangialaglio—Eat the garlic
Pelagatti—Skin cats (wonder if he knew more than one way)

Apparently, there is an entire book, Mal Comune Mezzo Gaudio, written about strange Italian last names. I think the name translates something like “trouble shared is trouble halved.” The author has perused phone books to come up with some bizarre but true names. I have not seen the book, but according to online sources, some of the names are quite insulting and others downright obscene. So before I continue, I must warn you that this next section is rated R for mature audiences only.
Fanciullacci—Bad children
Culetto—Little ass
Cazzoni—Big penises
I guess the only thing worse than being called Cazzoni would be to have the name Cazzini.

So where do these crazy names come from? How could people give themselves such names, and why don’t they just change them? The story I most often hear is that many people didn’t have last names until the time of the Napoleonic occupation, when a census was taken and everyone had to have last names. The census takers could assign last names to people as they wished, and if somebody ticked off a census taker or didn’t pay a bribe, he could end up with a rotten surname. This sounds logical, and I’ve heard it from several sources, though not from any official historians, but it makes the most sense to me.

I have also heard that the Italian judicial system makes it very difficult to obtain a name change. The webmaster of the website states that he had a friend “who worked in the office in Rome where name changes are (rarely) approved. He told us the most egregious case he ever came across was the name Ficarotta. The change was allowed.” Rotta means broken. Fica is a crude word for female genitalia. Sorry, I warned you this section was R rated. And even though the change was allowed, there are still large numbers of people with the original, unchanged name.

It is ironic that Italy not only frowns on name changes but also has laws that restrict boys from having girls’ names and vice versa. And there was a famous case of a child born in 2006 in Genoa whom the parents wanted to name Venerdi’, Friday. The courts disallowed the name because it would be “uncomfortable for the child and future adult, easily exposing him to a sense of ridicule, because of the appeal to the literary character (a subservient native in Robinson Crusoe).” Interestingly enough, most Italians seem to agree with the court ruling, which would probably not be the case in America. Perhaps Italians have a greater sense of decorum, or they are more used to submitting to government red tape.

For more unusual names, see More bizzarri Italian names.


  1. Big Swords - I'll have to remember that. Next time we have you over for dinner we will have to remember to invite the "Swords".

  2. I went all through school with a Ken Grassi - he owns a florist shop and is a councilman in UP. Wonder if he knows the meaning of his name?


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