|The Ustica Connection|
|Usticesi Given Names
By Chris Caravella
Presented below is a table of Italian given names and their English translations. The list of given names is based on a limited dataset of about 12,000 entries taken from the vital statistics records of a single town in Sicily (Ustica) spanning the time period from roughly 1820 - 1900. These would be the names most commonly associated with our immigrant ancestors but the dataset is certainly too geographically small to be representative of all Italian given names. The limited scope of the dataset does, however, point out some of the more interesting aspects of naming conventions in Italy as a whole and how given names got transformed into their English counterparts. It should come as no surprise that most of the names are of religious origin given Italy's deep-rooted association with the Roman Catholic Church. The top names in this dataset are Joseph (Giuseppe) and Mary (Maria) followed by other well-known biblical and religious names. There are, however, other names that most people familiar with Italian names will never have heard of, and also many common names that are obviously missing.
Many given names in Italy tend to be specific to certain towns or regions. The tradition of naming children after after a town's patron saint can account for some of this. For instance, St. Bartholomew is the patron saint of Lipari and Ustica, so the name Bartolomeo and its female equivalent Bartolomea, is over-represented in those areas. And because it is not a common name in Italy, the name may never occur in other areas, even those nearby. The use of odd given names is further amplified by the naming mechanism Italians used to honor a child's grandparents. This naming convention is not uncommon in Europe but the Italians were particularly consistent in its use. The first-born son is named after the father's dad, the first-born daughter is named after the father's mom, the second-born son is named after the mother's dad and the second-born daughter is named after the mother's mom. If one of these children were to die, then the name is reused for the next born child of the same gender. After the names of the grandparents are used, names of other close relatives are typically used. This naming mechanism inadvertently promotes the reuse of given names no matter how odd they may have been, so much so that sometimes a family's hometown can be determined just by the given names of the family members.
There are other naming conventions that make given names such a rich and interesting part of Italian culture. Italians use lots of "virtue" names like Faith (Fedele), Grace (Grazia), Felicity (Felice/Felicia) and Blessed (Benedetto). The same goes for names based on religious terms like Conception (Concetta), Annunciation (Annunziata or Nunziata), Rosary (Rosario/Rosaria), Easter (Pasquale) and Christmas (Natale). And there are always some really odd ones that seem totally alien and just do not translate well, like Gaetano/Gaetana (saint from Gaeta, a city north of Naples), Eleuterio (a 2nd century Pope) or Calcedonia (chalcedony - a form of agate). Italians were also fond of using female-equivalent names of male given names following the general gender pattern of nouns in the Italian language - an o at the end indicating male, an a at the end indicating female. This was another way to further honor grandfathers by simply swaping out an a for the o on the end of his name and giving the name to one of the later born daughters. Often in English there are no translations for female-equivalent male names such as Michela (Michael), Vincenza (Vincent) and Raffaela (Raphael). These types of names certainly presented a challenge for immigrants eager to be accepted in their new home in America. Where possible, most names were substituted with their English counterparts but for the odd ones, anything phonetically close was often used. A great example of this is the name Onofrio (an Egyptian hermit saint). Italians abbreviate names using the end of the name, unlike the English who use the beginning. Onofrio would have been shortened to Nofri or its phonetic equivalent Norphy, and somehow this got morphed into Murphy, an actual Irish surname. All of those forms appear in public records. Murphy stuck, however, and spread among the Italian immigrant community, at least in New Orleans which was a major immigration destination for the names represented in the dataset. It was also quite common for unusual interpretations of given names to come into common use even if the name had a viable English counterpart. Such is the case with the use of Henry for Andrea (Andrew), Rachel for Grazia (Grace), Samuel for Salvatore (Salvador) and Walter for Bartolomeo (Bartholomew).
English interpetations of Italian given names can often present difficulties when trying to tie an individual to Italian documents.
The table below is expanded to also include the various forms and meanings of the given names. Abbreviated names as well as diminutives, such as Angelina for Angela, were common in everyday use, but were never used in official Italian documents. This is not the case for official documents in America, where Italian names were often unfamiliar and nicknames were commonly recorded. A special note should be made concerning the names Antonino and Rosina. At one time in the ancient past they were diminutives of Antonio (does not occur in this dataset) and Rosa. Over time, saints and historical figures have born the dimnutive forms and because of this ancient historical usage each has become an accepted given name and each appears in official Italian documents. The translation table should help identify the root Italian given names of our ancestors which will greatly aid in researching historical Italian documents. A good website for exploring the roots of given names is www.behindthename.com or you can try just plugging the name into a language translator like www.wordreference.com.
Usticesi Given Names