by Angelo F. Coniglio - Naming conventions for given names in a country of origin can help to tie together records of family members. In researching those who were born in Italy and emigrated to the United States, it may also be necessary to know something about how the given name may have been modified in the new country. There are four common ways in which a ‘foreign’ given name may have been recorded in American documents. Names were usually NOT “changed at Ellis Island”, but were modified later, as the immigrant became Americanized.
1) The name was used “as-is” without any change. ‘Angelo’ in Italy is ‘Angelo’ in America. But the greater the difference between the language of origin and English, the less likely that the name was retained.
2) The name was translated and anglicized into a similar name. The Italian ‘Antonio’ or ‘Antonino’ became ‘Anthony’; the Italian ‘Vincenzo’ became ‘Vincent’; ‘Michele’ became ‘Michael’, etc.
3) The original sound or spelling of names were mimicked to produce names with different meanings.
a) The Italian/Sicilian ‘Vincenzo’ (pronounced ‘veen-CHAINZ-oh’) translates to ‘Vincent’, but often was anglicized as ‘James’, because that sounded like the accented syllable.
b) The Italian ‘Calogero’ means ‘good elder’, and a literal translation would be clumsy. So in the U. S.,‘Calogero’ was changed to match the first syllable, the result was ‘Carl’ or ‘Charles’.
4) The name was changed by some arbitrary method, often because it was unpronounceable or un-spellable by American officials: thus, “‘Biagio’ starts with a ‘B’, so let’s call him ‘Bill’ .” ‘Bill’ then applied for a marriage license, and the clerk entered his name as ‘William’. If you’re of Italian descent, and your name is William, your grandfather’s name may have been ‘Biagio’, or it may have been ‘Guglielmo’ (Italian for William). Depends on which method was used to anglicize his name.
The method of the last example was commonly applied when a name was unfamiliar. ‘William’ derives from the German ‘Wilhelm’. But a Biagio from Italy, a Vasillis from Greece or a Wladziu from Poland might all have been called ‘Bill’, and then adopted the name William. This is just one example. Numerous ‘American’ names bear no resemblance to the person’s name in the original language, nor to the original meaning of the name. Given names in other languages, especially Latin, can help to understand how names were altered, depending on the community in which the immigrant lived.
Many given names came from Latin or ancient Greek names, some of which in turn came from biblical Hebrew names. Latin versions of names were used in many church records, and some names were given Latin equivalents by 17th and 18th century scribes, even though the name was never used in the original Latin language. Common names from various countries can also be found by searching on-line.
For derivation of equivalent English names from Italian/Sicilian given names, go to my page at http://bit.ly/ItalianNames
Visit Angelo's website, www.bit.ly/AFCGen, and write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is the author of the book The Lady of the Wheel (La Ruotaia), based on his genealogical research of Sicilian foundlings. See www.bit.ly/ruotaia for more information, or order the book at www.bit.ly/racalmuto.