What’s in an Italian name?

May 4, 2015

Tutto fa brodo!” one of my first Italian teachers used to say. Just as everything goes into the broth to make a rich soup, every form of Italian—books, newspapers, magazines, CDs, movies, podcasts—goes into learning the language. The aptly named TUTTO ITALIANO, a bi-monthly audio magazine for people who love Italy and the Italian language, does indeed offer a little of everything.

Lively articles cover topics ranging from travel to the arts to sports to cuisine to politics. You can read them in a handsome glossy magazine along with vocabulary and grammar tips or listen to them on an audio CD. (I recommend both). Here is the first in an ongoing series of guest posts based on recent issues:

Baby in parents hands

I cognomi degli italiani

Italian surnames

Italy is “alla vigilia di una nuova rivoluzione” (on the eve of a new revolution), thanks to una nuova legge (a new law) that allows parents to give their children il cognome del padre o della madre (the family name of the father or the mother)—oppure di entrambi (or both).

In the past, surnames were often based on a man’s occupation: Fabbri (from fabbro, or blacksmith), Barberis (from barbiere, or barber), Muratori (from muratore, or mason). Other names were based on a region (Pugliese, Lombardi) or an antenato (ancestor), such as Di Vincenzo or Di Giovanni.

For centuries names were passed down orally, and over time many were distorted or adapted into a local dialect. Traditionally an Italian woman took the name of her husband when she married (si sposava).

Now, con questa nuova legge (with this new law), new parents may opt, not only for a mother’s or father’s surname, but for the choice considered “molto più chic” (much more chic): il doppio cognome (the double surname)—“finora riservato alle casate nobiliari” (until now reserved for noble families).

As for first names, the one più diffuso tra i bambini italiani (most popular among Italian baby boys) is Francesco—a reflection of the “Francesco-mania” inspired by il Santo Padre (the Holy Father). Other top choices include Andrea, Alessandro, Lorenzo and Matteo. For le bambine (baby girls), Sofia, from the Greek word for wisdom, heads the list, followed by Giulia, a name that dates back to Roma antica (ancient Rome), Aurora, Emma and Giorgia.

Once it was quasi un obbligo (almost an obligation) to give babies the names of their grandparents. This practice was “abbandonata da un bel po’ di anni” (abandoned quite a few years ago), but now “i nomi del passato tornano per piacere e non per dovere” (the names of the past return for pleasure and not for duty).

Words and Expressions 

neonati –- newborns

maschietti –- baby boys

soprannome –- nickname

diritto di famiglia –- family law

This is my adaptation of the article "I cognomi degli italiani," taken from TUTTO ITALIANO. The original article in Italian appears in issue 6, gennaio – febbraio 2015. The publication lives up to the promise its editors make: not only to significantly improve fluency, but also “help you understand this beautiful and diverse country and what it is to be Italian.” To subscribe, go to TUTTO ITALIANO, the audio magazine for learners of Italian. 

Dianne Hales is the author of MONA LISA: A Life Discovered and LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language. 


Subscribe here



La Passione
Mona Lisa
La Bella Lingua