Italian Surnames: The Funny, Surprising, and Just Plain Weird

^above “Queen Hope, widow of Wells” – she lived a good long life!

Il Corriere della Sera reports today that Italy has the largest number of surnames in the world: 350,000. The ten commonest surnames cover only 1% of the population. And, with many surnames, you can also tell something about its origins by its ending.

Italian surnames are fascinating, and sometimes very funny. Some of the best don’t seem to have emigrated to the US, though Americans trying to pronounce their Italian surnames can also be funny. I met a photographer in Connecticutt with the wonderfully romantic surname “Mezzanotte” (Midnight). An Italian would pronounce this Med-za-NOT-tay, which also sounds lovely. He pronounced it Mezza-note, which doesn’t.

One of the most common surnames in Lombardy is Fumagalli, which translates literally as “smoke the chickens.” That is: blow smoke into the henhouse to stun them, so they don’t make noise while you’re carrying them away. I guess chicken thieving was common in Lombardy, hence the popular Italian saying, Conosco i miei polli (“I know my own chickens”), used when you can predict how someone will behave or react, because you know them so well.

Death announcements in Lecco. Note the surnames Turba (“disturbs”) and Barbagelata (“frozen beard”)

I can’t think of examples of names in America which have a funny meaning, although some non-English names sound funny or rude to an English speaker, such as the Jewish Lipschitz or Indian Dixit (pronounced Dickshit). In Italy, there are many names which sound funny or odd even to Italian speakers, and leave you wondering how somebody’s ancestor acquired it. Examples:

  • Squarcialupi – “squarciare” is to rip, with violence; “lupi” are wolves. Okay, the ancestor was a fierce hunter.
  • On the other hand, Cantalupi – “cantare” – to sing. Sings with wolves?
  • Pelagatti – “pelare” – to peel or skin, “gatti” …cats. Presumably this guy knew more than one way.
  • Pelaratti – same thing, but rats. Now why would you bother?

Then there are the surnames which Italians fervently wish they could change, and go to great lengths to do so (it’s not easy to change a name in Italy), such as Finocchio – “Fennel,” but it’s also common slang for gay. Most red-blooded Italian males don’t want this one!

A friend of ours once 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” – broken cunt. The change was allowed.

More Funny Italian Surnames

  • Malinconico – melancholy
  • Mezzasalma – half-cadaver
  • Tagliabue – ox-cutter (butcher, I suppose)
  • Bellagamba – beautiful leg (there was a famous cardinal of this name)
  • Caporaso – shaved head
  • Denaro – money – a Mafia family in the news!
  • Contestabile – debatable
  • Falaguerra – make war
    …but…
    Acquistapace – buy peace
  • Accusato – accused
  • Peccati – sins
  • Bonanno – buon anno – good year, or happy new year
  • Borriposi – buon riposi – good rests

^ This architect’s surname means “big tower”.

^ “Macelleria Pancioni” would be literally translated as “big bellies butcher,” though Pancioni is probably a family name.

Nov 23, 2003

Many Italian surnames are also common words, so the potential for comedy is enormous when juxtaposed with the person’s profession, residence, or spouse. One of the funniest books we own is Mal Cognome Mezzo Gaudio, by Antonio di Stefano. The title is a pun on the saying Mal commune mezzo gaudio (A shared sorrow is half a joy); cognome means surname. The book is a treasure trove of funny names and even funnier combinations. But he missed one of my old favorites, a shop near my in-laws’ place in Rome called Enoteca Bevilacqua – the Drinkwater Wineshop.

Another name that’s funny on its own is Cazzaniga. This Lombard name may not actually mean anything, but it sounds close to cazzo negro – black dick. So there’s a common joke about it: Cazzaniga? Che nome lungo. (“What a long name.”)


where do people with your surname live in Italy?

Italian Orphan Names

Tracing Your Italian Roots

^ I assume this optical shop is named for its owner, whose surname means a joke or a trick.

^ This shop owner’s surname means “millet bread”.

55 thoughts on “Italian Surnames: The Funny, Surprising, and Just Plain Weird

  1. Frank Cannonito

    Ciao,
    Firfst, I thought the name “Esposito” came from Latin “ex posito,” “from this place,” which gives the origin of the stress on the 2nd syllable. It was used for foundlings, the place being the religious order caring for the child. Next, long ago in Italy for a conference, Professor Bompiani asked me”what do they call you in America?” I answered “Cannonito.” “Nonsense,” he replyed, “they can’t say that!” He had a student named “Mangialaglio” whose name was pronounced in America as “Mang- leeya- agg-leo,” which convinced him Americans couldn’t pronounce Italian names, which, of course, they can’t . The student’s name is amusing.

  2. Mark

    I wonder: is there a general rule for American pronunciations of Italian names and words ending in -one? There’s Al Capone, Eddie Carbone, marscapone, ministrone, etc.–without a long e sound. I’ve never heard “Caponee” but I have heard “Carbonee”; I’ve heard marscapone and minestrone, where the last syllable rhymes with “tone.” But I also hear both words with the long-e ending (not the Italian pronunciation, with English long a).

    Thanks for the help.

  3. Steve

    My grandfather’s name was Enrico Bacigalupo from Genoa. Any ideas about the origin of the name?

    Steve

  4. Angela

    Hey, lovely list! One last name you have to add to your list is ‘DIOTALLEVI’, literally a prayer stating ‘may God raise you’. which was given to orphans especially after the wars in Italy which left many parentless children. LIke Esposito or Trovatello, it indicates that some ancestors were left to be raised by God’s mercy rather than by their parents.

  5. Olivia

    My last name is Mancino. I hate when Americans pronounce it Man cee noh. It is pronounced Mahn chee no. My original last name was Mancuso, which means disabled/left handed. Left handed people were known as disabled back then, and were called mancuso’s. As you can imagine, my last name was changed to Mancino somewhere in the mix.

  6. Sean Panick

    I really enjoyed this article. Before coming to America my great grandpas last name was Panichi. I’ve tried to come up with some meaning, but teh best I can think of is some regional (I assume from Abruzzo, since that’s where they’re from) version of baker. I’m not quite sure though. I also hate it when people pronouce it Pa-nee-chee, when it’s pa-nee-kee

  7. Sammi

    My great grandfather was an orphan. His last name was Codino, meaning ‘the tail end’.

  8. palmasco

    @9 Mancino is the italian word for “lefty”, Mancuso che southern dialect one, and is pronounced with a sweet c, as in China 🙂
    @10 “Panichi” to me sounds like the plural of “panico”, which means “fear”, though the plural of panico doesn’t exist in italian.
    The only other thing I can think about, is the scientific name of this plant (english wiki) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foxtail_millet , (italian wiki) http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panicum_italicum
    🙂

  9. Pietro Toniolo

    Actually, in “Mal comune mezzo gaudio”, there is a single “m” in “comune”.

    And I’ve never heard of the pun on Cazzaniga. I do not believe it’s so common as you think. But it’s true that the name sounds strange, and a little abusive to our italian ears!

  10. Edoarod Bernasconi

    “Della Croce” was a common surname in the Como region, It was given to the children brought up in the “Orfanotrofio Della Croce”, or “Holy Cross Orphanage”. One of my ancestors was a Della Croce before getting adopted and becoming a Bernasconi.

  11. Laura DiGaetano

    Growing up we were told that our last name, DiGaetano, ment “of the forest”. Is this true?? We are of Scilician descent.

  12. Laura DiGaetano

    Growing up we were told that our last name, DiGaetano, ment “of the forest”. Is this true?? We are of Scilician descent.

  13. raymond dono conrad

    I discovered that a William Dono in the 12 century was a Norman nobleman in Naples. Since Willam is a Norman
    personal name, I also discovered that most people with that surname of Dono had lived in Normandy and not
    very many in Italy Comment?

  14. Bruna

    Di Gaetano

    (in italian “di” is never attached to the following name) means something like “from the Gaetano’s family”. Gaetano is a first name and means from Gaeta (a small city near naples).
    It do not mean forest or from the forest. Silvano instead means from the forest.

    Panichi

    It’s a typical tuscan surname. It’s probably related to panicum (a type of millet) which was extensively used by the romans (to prepare the polentum).

    Ghigliazza

    Ligurian for sure but not typical in the city of Genoa (but very common in the “ponente”, the area between Genoa and the French border). The origin is not clear, but there’s a number of related surnames in the area (ghiglino, ghiglio, etc…). My best guess is that it is related to Lilium.

    Bacigalupo

    Very common in Genoa (and the area) . “Baciga” is genoan for “bazzicare” (haunt // hang out) so the whole surname sounds like “(someone who) hang out with wolves”. My guess is that it was used for someone who lives away from the village (i.e. in the top of the mountains).

  15. Tom

    I am trying to research the last name vandina or van dina. I found one felice vandina emigrating out of genoa italy any suggestions ?

  16. Johnnie Peonio

    My last name is Peonio, we now a Peonio came off the boat at ellis island but cannot find any mention of the Peonio name in Italy. Do you have any idea for the origin of our name? Also our step grandfather’s last name was Davicco. Thank you

  17. Joe

    My last name is Iarocci. I’ve been trying to figure it out for a while…i think it’s meaningless, but it would be nice to at least know how it would be pronounced in italy

  18. Ann Galassi

    I am trying to find the meaning of the name Galassi. I know galassia means galaxy and thought Galassi would be a derivitive of it but I have not found evidence of that. I have seen sites that state Galassi is derivitive of Galahad of Authurian legend, yet I’m having a hard time believing this for some reason. The second is that it is the patronymic name of Galasso which means “cala” side of a steep hill. Does anyone know the true meaning and origin of the surname Galassi?

  19. Sally Guaitamacchi

    Esposito actually comes from ‘esposto’, or exposed, because the foundlings were left on the church steps, or -perhaps later – put on the wheel that took them through the church door. They have actuallyreintroduced the wheels in some parts of Italy for single mothers – I think in the hospitals – the notice about them is one of first things you see on arrival at Bergamo station. As an adoptee (inot a weird and often hostile family) I feel an affinity with these abandoned babies. Many in Florence were sent ot mix painters for the artists and some actually became famous painters in the Renaissance-nice.

  20. Matilde Welber

    @Joe: the italian pronounciation of the surname Iarocci is the following; ‘Iar’ as in ‘yard’, ‘occ’ as in ‘notch’ plus the final ‘i’ that sounds like a long ‘e’. The stressed syllable is the central one: ia-ROC-ci. I’m sorry but I can’t help you with the meaning, no idea.

    @Ann: I’m definitely not an expert, but Galassi might come from ‘gala, galaktos’, the Greek word for ‘milk’. In this case, it would be indirectly related to ‘galaxy’, which is derived from ‘gala, galaktos’ (the Milky Way is another example of the link between the images of milk and star light). Another possibility is a link with the name of the Gaul tribes that settled in Anatolia, Turkey. They were called ‘galatai’ (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galatia). Anyway, these are just two hypotheses!

  21. Joanie

    I am Italian, my last name is Miele. (me-el-leh) where in Italy does this come from? I know it means honey.

  22. Victor Carnavale Sant'Anna

    I have so many doubts! I’m brazilian with italians ancestrys and I’d like to know from where these surnames come from and what it means:

    Sant’Anna, Paulo, Carnavale, do Nascimento, Melia, Beneditto, Francesco, Geralda, Olivieri. Please gimme a light 😛

  23. Lella

    My surname is Scarpelllini, i have tried to find its origin and meaning to no avail… Pls help:)

  24. Pietro Toniolo

    @Joanie: Miele, according to http://gens.labo.net/ comes from Campania, in the south of Italy, around Naples

    @Victor: the origin of italian surnames can be checked on the http://gens.labo.net/ site. Do Nascimento does not sound italian at all. It is probably spanish. Carnavale can stand for CarnEvale. Many of the surnames you cite are personal names, some of them written in strange ways; badly transcribed, maybe? For example PaOlo, BenedEtto. Francesco and Geralda are pesonal names. Olivieri is a common surname, but we also have a personal name: Oliviero; not common, but think about Oliviero Toscani the photographer!

    @Lella: although “scarpe” means shoes, I believe that Scarpellini should be a dialectal form for scalpellini: stonemasons. The exchange of “r” and “l” is very common in many italian dialects, especially in the center of Italy. The usual gens.labo.net gives many Scalpellini coming form Romagna and Tuscany. The others in Rome and Milan are probably immigrants.

  25. anne

    My surname is Arbucci; I believe the name is of Tuscan origin however, my family lived in the Province of Avellino for some generations…can you advise further? Grazie!

  26. Andrew

    Place names (Lombardi-Lomabards), jobs or works (Ferrari-Smiths),patronymic (Di Giovanni-Johnson), like elsewhere surnames in Italy have the same origin. There is more variety due to high population in ancient times and regional reasons (Italy become a unique State in 1861)

  27. Mark Vellante

    My Grandfathers last name is Vellante and he always pronounced it Vell-en-tea. So I say it how he says it. My Sister says Vell-an-tay. And we always argue about it. I really dont know how to say it, but my grandpas family is from Abruzzo. My grandma’s surname is Fabiano, I think my spelling might be off but when I looked that up it said it means Bean Farmer. She was from avelino. I wonder if vellante is just a variation of valentino or something?

  28. Francesca Maggi

    I love this post! And, in light of the Weiner scandal, just posted a similar one of my own — will definitely quote this post on my blog, Burnt by the Tuscan Sun…

    Grazie!

    p.s. @Joe, your surname would be pronounced, “Yah-RO-Chee”

  29. Victor Carnevale Sant'Anna

    @pietro thanks! I just found that “do Nascimento” is portuguese! 😀
    And Paulo/Paolo and Francesco of my grandparents are just ornamental names! But i found more family names that sounds weird to me, like Bibiano, Mèlia, Amèrigo and i just can’t foud the origin of Sant’Anna, even with my grandparent Justininano Sant’Anna keep saying thats come from Tuscany.
    Anyway, thanks a lot!

  30. Gianina Soma

    When you enter Iarocci in Google Translate from Italian to English this way: i a rocci it translates as: the rocks

  31. IBRO

    Dear…
    Can you please tell me does the Italian surname of FIAMENGO origins from the Ancient Roman surname of FLAMINIU
    S?
    Thank you very much.
    T.Ibro,a history teacher
    USA

  32. Roberto Goretti

    A good source of information on the origin of several Italian last names is here (in Italian only) :
    http://www.cognomiitaliani.org/cognomi/index.html

    In the following website you can enter a last name (cognome) and it will show the concentration of the last name on the map. Generally the highest concentration will give you an idea from where in Italy the last name originated. Although you’ll find high concentrations in both Milan and Rome of many last names, since those are the largest metro areas in Italy and many immigrated there. Obviously very common last names (such as Esposito, Rossi, Bianchi) will show all over the place:

    http://gens.labo.net/it/cognomi/

  33. Rebecca

    My surname was also Iarocci. My father anglicized the pronunciation to I-rocky so people wouldn’t massacre the name. Didn’t help….

  34. Finocchio

    Your post about the word “Finocchio” was very offensive. It doesn’t mean homosexual. It means “fag”, much like “frocio” does. “Most red-blooded Italians don’t want this one”? Why the hell not?

    There are as many Italian “omosessauli” as there are anywhere else.

    The way you wrote that sounds as if you have a bigotry against homosexuality.

  35. Finocchio

    “Di Gaetono” mean literally “of Guy”. The first name “Guy” in Italian is “Gaetano”! So properly anglicized, the surname Di Gaetono, means “Guyson”.

  36. Deirdre Straughan Post author

    Ok, fair point about finocchio being a derogatory term and not having the same emotional weight as “homosexual”. Consciously or unconsciously, I didn’t use the term “fag” to translate it because I have many gay friends (if you read elsewhere on my blog, this is a fairly obvious aspect of my life and personality), and I’m not comfortable with the word precisely because I know it is derogatory. Using slang appropriately in another language is difficult in part because terms we did not grow up with don’t carry the same emotional weight to us. This can also be true across generations. Many of my parents’ generation would be extremely offended by the casual way “fuck” is used today.

    As for offense – have you considered how offensive it is that you make assumptions about me and attack me based on one word in a web page?

  37. Frankie

    What does DiSantis mean? I saw a passport of my grand fathers it was spelled De Sanctis originally. Also my grand mothers name was Bifulci (unsure of spelling but pronounced bih-ful-kee.)

  38. Jay

    I’m interested in the surname Rafaniello. I know it’s related to ravanello. Would this have been used for a farmer?

  39. Paola Lamborghini

    rafaniello, variation of ravanello could be one of the many names used for foundlings in and around Bologna in the 19th century. I would like to know the origin of my surname, Lamborghini

  40. Pingback: joke italian names | Share4you blog

  41. Nicolas Bifulci

    Answer to Frankie,

    I refer to an article in french (Associative structures, urban resources and social integration of migrants, Rome, sixteenth-seventeenth century) by Eleonora Canepari, bifulci means “paesants plowmen”.

    If I refer to another book (Abbregé du parallèle des langues françoise et latine, par Philibert Monnet, 1635) that is a kind of dictionnary of translation french-latin, then bifulci means “fork” (the big one for hay and straw).

    There is also something about bifulci and the Slavs but I did not understand the meaning of it and how it is related.

    I found once that bifulco was meaning “paesant”. Then bifulco and bifulci are singular and plural. I have no reference for it,

    Phonetics of these words are bifulko and bifult?i (as you wrote it, not kee but tshee).

    A quick reference to the notorious husband of Carmen Bifulco, John Stanley Wojtowicz. The story of this man is told in Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon and his character is played by Al Pacino.

    Corrections and information are welcome.

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