How Children Were Named

Unlike our American obsession with individuality and creativity when naming children (North?  Apple?  Brooklyn?), naming conventions in Italy followed a set pattern and were a sign of respect for family members.  First sons were named after paternal grandfathers; second sons were named after maternal grandfathers.  First daughters were named after paternal grandmothers; second daughters were named after maternal grandmothers.  Children were also named after other relatives, aunts, uncles, great aunts, great uncles and great grandparents. In my mother’s family, there were four children: first son (Raffaele) was named after his paternal grandfather; the first daughter (Maria Nicola) was named after her paternal grandmother.  The second son (Vincenzo) was named after a great grandfather.  My mother, the second girl (Rose), was named after her aunt.  However, there was a baby girl born before her who died, and she was given the name Rose as well.  If a son or daughter died (and was named after someone in particular), then the parents would give the next child the same name.  This could happen repeatedly, three or four times — until a child survived with that name.  There was no sentimentality about names.  Some of my favorite Italian names:  Chiara, Cosimiro, Biagio, Santa, Maddalena, Mercurio, Bartolomeo, Filomena, Giacinta, Assunta, Margherita, Achille, Isidoro.  I have not tallied the names, but I suspect that – given the religion of Italy — a high percentage of girls’ name began with Maria: Maria Donata, Maria Nicola, Maria Teresa, Maria Nunzia, Maria Vincenza, Maria Grazia, Maria Arcangela, Maria Rosa, Maria Antonia, Mara Concetta and, of course, Maria Guiseppa.  For the boys, Giuseppe was a common name.

Immigration and Name Changes

When Italians immigrated, their names were often Americanized, but not — as urban legend has it — by the immigration officials.  Immigrants traveled with their passports; their names were on those passports and their names did not change once they arrived or departed from Ellis Island.  Names often did change through assimilation or illiteracy.  If an immigrant did not know how to spell his/her name, teachers, census takers, employers might just spell the name is it sounded to their American ears.

Given Names

Given names were usually changed.  Sometimes, it was a simple change (Lucia→Lucy; Maria→Mary; Matteo→Mathew).  Sometimes the change was just the English translation of the name (Giovanni→John; Luigi→Louis; Filippo→Phillip).  Most of these changes are easy to figure out if you are looking for American records.  Sometimes, however, the change is surprising.  For example, if I am looking for an Italian Vincenzo in America, I will look for Vincent, Vance and James; the American name is usually James.  Why James?  I have no idea!!  Likewise, if I have an American James, he probably was an Italian Vincenzo.  Here is a list of the most common given name changes I’ve come across.  Please let me know if you have any other examples.


Surnames did not always change.  When they did, I think it was most often to make them sound more American.  Vowels were substituted (Miniello→Minelli); consonants were switched to American sounds (Ciannilli→Chinelli/D’Amici→Demech); syllables were dropped (Tamburiello→Tambur).  Who changed the spelling?  Who knows!?!?  Sometimes Americans (census takers? doctors? receptionists? teachers?) wrote the name the way it sounded to their American ears, and the immigrants adopted the new spelling.  One person told me that in her family, the children’s names were changed by their teachers.  The original surname was Gaggiano (or Caggiano), but cousins ended up with wildly varying surnames: Kajohn, Codgen. Coggiano, Cogan.  For some immigrants, however, the name change was intentional, perhaps because of discrimination or as way of assimilating.  The most striking change is Notarsanto→Bone.  I was really stumped by this when I was trying to figure out what happened to the Notarsantos.  They disappeared!  Once I spoke to a distant cousin, he explained.  This family initially lived in Pennsylvania and Ohio and it was a way to assimilate and avoid discrimination.  Here is a list of some surname changes.  I did not keep a list of them over the years, so this is from memory.  If you know of any others, please let me know.

 Posted by at 10:57 pm