Italy Personal Names

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Understanding customs used in Italian names can help you identify your ancestors in records. Learn to recognize name variations and see clues in names.

Online Tools[edit | edit source]

Surnames[edit | edit source]

Patronymics[edit | edit source]

One of the oldest and most widespread expressions of paternity used in Italy is characterized by the preposition di (of), entered between two given names; for example, Pietro di Giovanni (Peter the son of John). With each new generation, the combination of names increased; hence Pietro's son Leonardo would be known as Leonardo di Pietro di Giovanni.

A large segment of Italian names today contain the preposition di between the given name and surname: di Paolo, d'Alberto. Sometimes the records also contain individuals' names, the names of the father, and even the grandfather inserted between the given name and surname: Francesco di Giovanni d'Angelo is actually Francesco d'Angelo (the son of Giovanni). [1]

Matronymics[edit | edit source]

You will encounter a relatively small proportion of matronymic surnames (names which are derived from the name of the mother or a matriarchal ancestor). Children occasionally took the surname of a mother who was not married to the father, a mother with whom they identified more comfortably because of long absences of the father in military service or employment, or a mother who was widowed. [2]

Women’s Surnames[edit | edit source]

Women are referred to by their maiden name in most documents, even after marriage.

Alias Surnames[edit | edit source]

In some areas of Italy, individuals may have taken a second surname. In records this second surname may be preceded by the word "detto, vulgo, or dit". This practice was used to distinguish between different branches of the same family, especially when the families remained in the same town for generations.

Surnames for Abandoned Children[edit | edit source]

Abandoned infants had surnames assigned to them by the foundling homes where they were abandoned and often a new surname may be assigned to the infant when placed with a wet nurse in a foster family. For more on this, see the article Italian Infant Abandonment.

Surnames Historical Development[edit | edit source]

  • Before record keeping began, most people had only one name, such as John.
  • As the population increased, it became necessary to distinguish between individuals with the same name. The problem was usually solved by adding descriptive information. Giovanni became Giovanni Fabro (John the smith), Giovanni di Matteo (John son of Matthew), Giovanni Basso (John the short), or Giovanni di Napoli (John from Napoli).
  • At first surnames applied only to one person, not to the whole family. After a few generations, these names became hereditary and were passed on from generation to generation.
  • Surnames developed from several sources. For example:
    • Occupational (based on a person’s trade, such as Carter or Smith)
    • Geographical (based on a person’s residence, such as Drayton or Debenham)
    • Patronymic (based on a person’s father’s name, such as Jones, son of John)
    • Descriptive or nickname (such as Joy or Child)
  • The nobility and wealthy land owners were the first to begin using surnames.
  • Merchants and townspeople then adopted the custom, as did the rural population. This process took two or three centuries.

Surname Changes of Immigrants in the United States[edit | edit source]

As Immigrants moved into English-speaking countries, their surnames were impacted in a variety of ways.


  • Most of the time the surname spelling changed to accommodate the different phonetic spelling in the English language. In other words, the recorder tried to write the name the way he heard it.
  • Surnames may also have been translated outright into English, sometimes with a slight twist.
  • Within the community, such as the local parish, immigrants may continue to use the original name, while at the same time using English-language equivalents when dealing with local government, census takers, and other English speakers.
  • Different branches of the same family may adopt various surname spellings.
  • Prior to 1900, formal surname changes documented in local court records are relatively rare.
  • During the early 20th Century, especially the World War I era, surname changes are recorded more frequently, as immigrants or, more often, their children, tried to adopt more neutral surnames.

Given Names[edit | edit source]

  • Italian given names are often derived from Biblical names, such as Giuseppe (Joseph) or from the names of a saint, such as Francesco (Francis).
  • When baptized, children were usually given several given names. Some of these may be the names of parents or other relatives. In some areas, names given at baptism were not the same names that the child used during life. Civil registration records may only list a child’s first given name, but church records (such as baptism registers) would list all of the given names.

Naming Patterns[edit | edit source]

In Italy a particular naming pattern was very common and continues to be used in some regions today. The following pattern may be helpful in researching family groups and determining the parents of the mother and father:

  • The first male child was often named for the father’s father.
  • The second boy was often named for the mother’s father.
  • The first female child was often named for the father’s mother.
  • The second girl was often named for the mother’s mother.

If a child died, often the name was given to the next child of that gender.

Grammatical Effects on Italian Names[edit | edit source]

With a few exceptions, names in Italy follow the same pattern as the rest of the language: masculine names end in o, and feminine names in a. Names ending in "t", "i", or "io" are masculine.

Variations[edit | edit source]

Italian genealogical records may be in Italian or Latin and occasionally in German or French. Your ancestor’s name could be in Latin on the birth record, in Italian on the marriage record, and in Latin again on the death record. Names are often spelled quite differently when translated into different languages.

Italian French Latin German
Alberico, Alberigo Adalbert Adalbertus Albrecht
Anna Anne Anna Anna
Elisabetta Isabelle Elisabetha Elisabeth
Francesco François Franciscus Franz
Giorgio Georges Georgius Georg
Boleslao Bogomil Bogumilus Gottlieb
Giovanni Jean Joannes Johann (Hans)
Carlo Charles Carolus Karl
Caterina Catherine Catherina Katharine
Lorenzo Laurent Laurentius Lorenz
Liugi Louis Ludovicus Ludwig
Margherita Marguerite Margarita Margareta
Maria Marie Maria Marie
Guglielmo Guillaume Guilielmus Wilhelm

The following book translates given names into 23 different European languages (including English):

  • Janowowa, Wanda, et al. Sownik Imion (Dictionary of Names). Wroclaw: Ossoliski, 1975. (FHL book EUROPE REF 940 D4si; film 1181578 item 2; fiche 6000839.)

For Further Reading[edit | edit source]

FamilySearch Library[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. "Italian Surnames", in BYU Script Tutorial, https://script.byu.edu/Pages/the-italian-documents/it-italian-surnames(english), accessed 19 February 2021.
  2. "Italian Surnames", in BYU Script Tutorial, https://script.byu.edu/Pages/the-italian-documents/it-italian-surnames(english), accessed 19 February 2021.