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by Angelo F. Coniglio - I have discussed early traditions for determining given names for Italian children. Today, most names consist of one or more given names combined with family names, or surnames.

Surnames are a relatively recent phenomenon in human history. Nobility and landowners may have had identifying names besides their given names, but ordinary residents of most countries didn’t use surnames until they were required by law, some not until the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Combining the ‘given’ name with a surname identified an individual within a family, and resulted in the ‘John Smith’ type of name we are now familiar with. 

Many surnames were used by our ancestors so long ago that after generations of being passed on in the family, no one can remember why the surnames were originally applied, or what they meant.  Many areas, including Scandinavia, Spain and Ireland had naming conventions for surnames; traditions similar to but often more complex than the customs for choosing given names. These conventions could differ widely between countries. I won’t go into those here but I’ll discuss the general use and meanings of Italian surnames, as well as another widespread custom, that of using ‘nicknames’ to identify people.

Early surnames, in any locality, identified a person by some physical attribute, such as Long, Short or White; or an occupation like Butcher, Baker or Cooper; or a place of origin – Calabrese, Palermo or Licata. Some were based on parentage or ancestry – Johnson, Svenssen, Di Carlo, Di Francesco, etc.. 

This table gives Italian surnames, and examples of names with the same or similar meaning in English and other languages.

The naming conventions in Italy and especially Sicily often resulted in numerous people in a town or community with exactly the same name, both given name and surname. Methods were adopted to differentiate between such individuals.  For example, there might be three boys in the same town, all named Pietro Coniglio; one short, one fat, and one red-haired. They might be nicknamed lo Curto, lo Grasso and lo Russo; or Shorty, Fatty, and Red. These nicknames would then result in their names being given as Pietro Coniglio lo Curto, Pietro Coniglio lo Grasso, and Pietro Coniglio lo Russo.  

Often, to identify the offspring and descendants of these individuals, the nickname was applied to them as well, and in some cases, the original surname might be dropped, and the family name became the surname.   So the grandson of Pietro Coniglio lo Grasso might be known, commonly and officially, as Pietro Grasso.

These descriptive names are called sopranomi (nicknames) or ‘nciurie (‘insults’, because they were often derogatory).   In many towns, a man’s associates might not even know his actual surname.   Unfortunately, the evolution of nicknames into accepted surnames is not well documented.  But knowing a person’s nickname can be very helpful if you visit his birthplace, where living descendants or neighbors might recall the connection.  Often, even if the nicknames were not officially adopted, several generations of a family carried the same nickname.

Visit Angelo's website,, and write to him at   He is the author of the book The Lady of the Wheel (La Ruotaia), based on his genealogical research of Sicilian foundlings.  See for more information, or order the book at