If you’re named after a Sicilian City

Sicily has nine provinces. Each province has a city, a ‘provincial seat’ that has the same name as the province. These cities are: Palermo, Trapani, Agrigento, Caltanissetta, Enna, Messina, Catania, Siracusa, and Ragusa. My sense of the matter is that first the cities were named, and then the regions under their influence acquired the names of their major city. This often leads to confusion for genealogic researchers. An immigrant, when asked where he was born, may have responded, for example “Caltanissetta”, leaving the researcher to figure out whether he meant one of the many towns, variously named, in the Province of Caltanissetta, or whether he actually was born in the town named Caltanissetta. This puzzle is further complicated if the immigrant, reponding to “Where did you come from?” answered “Palermo”, which is a seaport. Did he mean he was born in the Province or city of Palermo, or did he simply mean the port of Palermo, where he boarded the ship that took him to America?

An interesting aspect of these city and provincial names is this: many Sicilians, as well as Italian mainlanders) have surnames that are the same as those of these towns and provinces, or derivations of them (Siragusa for Siracusa; Rausa for Ragusa; Girgenti for Agrigento). What does this mean?

Most folks simply accept their surnames without questioning their origins. Some, with surnames like Palermo, Messina, etc., assume that their distant ancestors came from the town or province bearing that name. In my research experience, that has not always been the case.

To shed some light on this naming procedure, I used the Italian website www.cognomix.it. That site allows a search using any surname, and returns various “hits” including maps of Italy and Sicily showing the modern-day distribution of surnames.   I make no claims about the accuracy of the maps: the information is probably from phone, mail, or e-mail databases, and most likely does not include all persons with a particular surname. But I think the results can be reasonably compared. They’re shown here, beginning with the least-common surname. The number in parentheses after the place name heading indicates the number of occurences of the surname in Sicily.

CALTANISSETTA (9): Caltanissetta appears as a surname only eighteen times in the site cognomix.it for all of Italy, including only ten in Sicily. There, nine are in Palermo province and one is in Catania province, with none in Caltanissetta, nor any of the other provinces.   Caltanissetta is a modification of the Arabic name Qalat al Nisaà or “Fort of Women”.

ENNA (164): Enna, the city, is the oldest surviving city in Sicily, having been founded before 1100 BC by the indigenous Sicani. The ancient name was Henna, but the town was known as Castrogiovanni from the Middle Ages until 1926, when it was changed to Enna, which is also the name of its province.   The site cognomix.it shows 164 instances of the surname Enna in all of Italy, surprisingly with 120 in Sardinia and only 13 in Sicily. The distribution in Sicily is 11 in Palermo province, with one in Trapani province and only one in Enna province, none in the other provinces. The surname Enna is the modern pronunciation of the ancient name Henna.

The surname Castrogiovanni occurs 471 times in all of Italy, with the preponderance (246) in Sicily, where most (94) occur in Enna province. This seems reasonable, as the greatest occurrence is in the province in which the town is located. However, as we shall see, this is the exception rather than the rule. The meaning of Castrogiovanni is “Fortification of Giovanni”

AGRIGENTO (241): There were no individuals found with this surname, however the ancient name of the town was Girgenti, and that surname appears 601 times for all of Italy, including 241 in Sicily. In Sicily, the greatest number, 119, occurs in Palermo province, with only 27 in Agrigento province. Agrigento and the ancient version Girgenti are derived from the name of the Greek settlement there, called Akragas.

TRAPANI (826): The surname Trapani appears 1,792 times in Italy, including 826 in Sicily. The greatest number in Sicily, 318, occurs in Palermo province, with Trapani province coming in second with 149.  The surname Trapani is derived from the Greek Drépanon, which means “sickle”, from the shape of the harbor of the town of Trapani.

SIRACUSA (1,064): The surname derived from this place is spelled as either Siracusa or Siragusa. They occur 1,699 times in Italy, including 1,064 in Sicily. Siracusa occurs 143 times in Messina province, and only 29 in Siracusa province; while the form Siragusa has 392 occurrences in Palermo province, with only 4 in Siracusa province. Siracusa/Siragusa is derived from the Greek syrako, meaning swamp or marsh, describing the town’s environs.

PALERMO (1,147): Palermo is a very common place-name-derived surname, with 3,499 in all of Italy, with the largest representation being in Sicily with 1,147. But the greatest occurrence is not in Palermo province, but in Trapani province with 238. The provinces of Catania (219), Agrigento (174) and Caltanissetta (156) all have more than Palermo province, which has 141. Palermo is the result of successive changes in the name of the city from the Greek Panormus, meaning “complete port”, to the Arabic Bal’harm, to the present Palermo.

RAGUSA (1,509): The surname derived from this place name takes two forms, Ragusa and the far less common Rausa. Combined, it occurs 2,376 times in Italy overall, and 1,509 in Sicily. It’s greatest occurrence is in Catania province, with 501, while Ragusa province is second with 290. The name Ragusa is thought to derive from the Byzantine Greek word rogos, meaning ‘granary’, because of the richness of the agricultural region.

CATANIA (1,663): Catania occurs as a surname 2,675 times in Italy, with 1,663 occurrences in Sicily. Catania province itself has the most Catania surnames in Sicily, 632, followed by the provinces of Messina (205) and Palermo (168). The surname Catania comes from the name of the ancient Greek settlement Katáne.

MessinaMESSINA (4,648): Messina is by far the most common place-name-derived surname, with 7,867 in all of Italy, the majority o them (4,648) in Sicily. But the greatest occurence of the surname Messina is not in Messina province, which has only 524, but in Catania province with 1,397. Two other provinces have more Messina surnames than does Messina province: Palermo province with 903, and Trapani province with 629. The original Greek settlement in the area was called Zancle by them, but was changed in 500 BC to Messene to honor the city in Greece by the same name. The modern name of the city, its province, and the surname, is Messina.

So what does this all signify? Some conclusions may be drawn. As might be expected, the three most widely seen and numerous of these nine Sicilian place-surnames; Palermo, Catania and Messina, reflect the three Sicilian provinces with the largest populations. In only one province, Catania, does the surname derived from that province occur more than it does in the other provinces. The surname Castrogiovanni does occur more in Enna province than in any other. But of the other seven surnames considered, each occurs most in a Sicilian province other than the one that bears the name:

The surname Caltanissetta occurs most in Palermo province, as do the surnames Girgenti, Trapani and Siragusa.

But the surname Palermo occurs most not in that province, but in Trapani province.

The surname Siracusa occurs most in Messina province, while the surname Messina occurs most in Catania province, as does the surname Ragusa.

Of course, these are modern numbers; the distributions would have been different centuries ago, when surnames first began to be used. And today, certainly, most of these surnames may be found not only in Italy and Sicily, but in America and all over the world.

An explanation of the anomalies presented above, I believe, is that in many cases the surnames were given to foundlings, whose ancestral names were not known. For centuries, in Sicily, foundlings were given stigmatic surnames by their discoverers: Proietto (castoff), Esposto (exposed), Trovato (found), and so on. Even crueler names like Milingiana (eggplant) and Giumento (mare) were used, and townspeople knew immediately that children with those names were at best orphans, and at worst born out of wedlock. Of course, when boys with these surnames matured and married, their children took the made-up surnames as valid, legitimate names, and passed them on to their descendants, most of whom have no knowledge that somewhere in their distant ancestry was an abandoned child.

Eventually, laws were passed proscribing these unkind surnames, but milder ones could be just as damning: surnames like di Dio (of God), di Giugno (born in June), del Popolo (of the people), etc. In some cases, such children were given the name of the town or province they were born in, a kind of generic surname. However, more often, foundlings were given surnames derived from other, more distant towns or provinces. Hence, a foundling in Palermo might be named Messina, while one in Messina might be named Siracusa. While these names may today seem innocuous, in effect, they were as stigmatic as some of the more brusque names of previous times. The reason?   Giving a child born in Palermo the surname Messina effectively labeled him or her as ‘from elsewhere’, that is, ‘a stranger’; that is, ‘a foundling’.

Whether my theories are correct or not, whatever the origins of these ubiquitous surnames, today they’re recognized as marks of true sicilianità (Sicilian-ness); names to be proud of, echoing with memories of the homeland that sent forth daring pioneers to find a better life for their families in America.

Viva Caltanissetta, Enna, Castrogiovanni, Girgenti, Trapani, Siracusa, Palermo, Ragusa, Catania, and Messina!!!

Angelo F. Coniglio

…….. The Lady of the Wheel

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22 Responses to "If you’re named after a Sicilian City"

  1. Giovanni  August 11, 2014 at 9:33 pm

    Nice article Angelo.
    I read and heard that names after cities was often the rule for Jews, also those living in Sicily…
    “Jews used the town or region where they lived, or where their families came from, as their last name. As a result, the Germanic origins of most East European Jews is reflected in their names.”
    Have you heard about that?
    G.

    Reply
  2. Angelo Coniglio  August 12, 2014 at 1:55 am

    Giovanni: I knew that other nationalities used place names as surnames, but was not specifically aware of the Jewish tradition. I’ll have to research it.

    Reply
  3. Maria Di Marco Critti  August 12, 2014 at 2:47 am

    You can look at “Jewish surnames in Sicily”. going to google.

    Reply
  4. Giovanni  August 12, 2014 at 10:59 am

    Basically, what happen to Jews departing Sicily or other places where they were living (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Jews_in_Sicily), is the same that happened to Sicilian departing Sicily and arriving in US (as you described).

    From Best of Sicily article: “Estimates vary widely, but in the early 1490s there may have been as many as 35,000 Jews in Sicily. Of the Jews who then departed for Rome, Ancona, Venice, Malta or elsewhere, some adopted surnames such as Palermo or Messina in reference to their city of birth – though this is not to imply that all Italians bearing such surnames are descended patrilineally from Jewish forebears” …

    There are anyway many commonalities between the two Diasporas…

    Reply
  5. Angelo Coniglio  August 12, 2014 at 1:29 pm

    Yes, the Jews’ flight from the Inquisition had many parallels in the ‘Great Migration’ 400 years later. However, the taking of place-names as surnames was evidently by Jews leaving Sicily forever. It would be interesting to research whether many of the ‘converted’ Jews who remained in Sicily did the same. This was also at about the time when surnames were beginning to be used. Before that, only the nobility, and the rich or powerful had ‘family’ names.

    Reply
  6. Greg De Carmine  August 31, 2014 at 2:01 pm

    My surname was given by the wet nurse at the church where my great grandfather was abandoned in Cattolica Eraclea. Ruota on via Collegio. I did ancestry DNA for fun and was surprised by high % of west asian (Caucasus) DNA on Sicily. Theapricity website gives % DNA mix by province. My family is from
    Lercara Friddi and CE/RIbera/Cianciana areas. Any thoughts on how the DNA mix occurred ?

    Reply
  7. Angelo Coniglio  August 31, 2014 at 6:46 pm

    Greg: The DNA information on Apricity is a member’s analysis of the distribution. Usually, these distributions are for 500 to 5,000 or more years in the past. The “DNA mix” may represent the mix of the earliest inhabitants of the island, 10,000 or more years ago. That Western Asia-Caucasus element may simply indicate where the progenitors of those long-ago ancestors once lived. My research is more “modern”, if one considers 1600 to 1910 as modern!

    Reply
  8. maxine  September 2, 2014 at 2:43 pm

    Great post and veryinformative and interesting!!!
    Thank you for sharing I really enjoyed reading it!!

    Reply
  9. Joanne Mule'  September 4, 2014 at 7:11 am

    My last name, Mule’, is not named for a city, but is a typical Sicilian name, surprisingly, it was not a stigmatic name as discribed in the article. I have called names and poked fun at by friends after hearing the unique name I have. It is It is derived from the Arabic term “Malwa” which means teacher. It is very interesting to learn it’s origins.

    Reply
  10. Angelo Coniglio  September 4, 2014 at 2:36 pm

    Joanne:

    Was your ancestor a foundling? If so, the name Mulè may have been considered stigmatic. “mulu” means “mule” in Sicilian, and the Sicilians love “plays on words”.. The Arabic “mullah” , “mulu” and “mulè” may have been interchanged.

    This reminds me of a similar “inside joke” that Sicilians played on the Saracens, when that group ruled Sicily. The natives would call them “sciccu” (English phonetics, “SHIH-koo”), and the Saracens thought they were being called “sheikh” with an accent, but actually, “sciccu” means “donkey”.

    Reply
  11. Joe Siragusa  September 13, 2014 at 2:55 pm

    Great article, Ange. To further your point, I’ve come across a number of fellow Siragusas that assume their family came from Siracusa, but further research revealed that they have all been from elsewhere in Sicily — as is my family (Collesano, Palermo).

    Reply
  12. Patrick Pregiato  June 5, 2016 at 11:39 pm

    Sceccu is donkey not sciccu.

    Reply
  13. Marcy  June 9, 2016 at 3:44 am

    My Maiden name is Cremona, the same name as the Citta Di Cremona. Very proud if my surname but I don’t know if it is a Jewish name…I’m Brazilian.

    Reply
    • Leon J. Radomile  June 1, 2017 at 7:31 pm

      I’ll wager that your family immigrated to Brazil from Italy (and maybe even from the city of Cremona, the violin capital of Italy) When my grandparents immigrated to Philadelphia in 1910 from Abruzzi, cousins immigrated to San Paolo, Brazil. In fact, there are more Italians in Brazil (25 million) than Argentina (18 million).

      Reply
  14. Francis Ali  July 30, 2016 at 9:10 am

    Our Sicilian surname is Ali would you know if this is a place name?
    Thank you…

    Reply
    • Francis  August 3, 2016 at 8:29 pm

      Thank you very much for all the work you have done.
      I found 2 people with the same last name in the city that my grandparents came from and so that was great. It would be better if I spoke Italian!
      Sincerely,
      Francis

      Reply
    • Louisa  January 18, 2017 at 12:57 am

      Francis, Ali is a town In Sicily, Provincia di Messina. There are many people from that town called either d’Ali (meaning from Ali) or just Ali (which could imply either a foundling or also from the town Ali)

      Reply
  15. Claudia Pisacano Levy  October 20, 2016 at 2:12 am

    Some of my Sicilian ancestors were named Milazzo. The rest of my family came from Naples and Potenza. I just found out my DNA shows 6% European Jewish. I found your blog very interesting. I also am 15% Middle Eastern so I have a lot of investigating to do.

    Reply
  16. Toni de Bromhead  January 30, 2017 at 3:05 pm

    I have read that during the Spanish Inquisition in Sicily Jews were offered the choice of either leaving the island, or become Christian, which included changing their name to a local non Jewish name. So it was those who stayed who took on the name of their town or region, very often with ‘di’ attached, which means from. I know a number of people with such names, for example di Trapani, and they are all aware of their Jewish origins. It doesn’t appear to be a mystery in Sicily, where I have lived many years.

    Reply
  17. Joan Barbirotto Howell  March 23, 2017 at 7:20 pm

    I came across your article while researching provinces in Sicily. Very informative and interesting reading, thank you!

    Reply
  18. Leon J. Radomile  June 1, 2017 at 7:11 pm

    Dear Signor Coniglio:
    I was doing some research on a Sicily facts crossword puzzle I am doing for NIAF’s Ambassador magazine and came across your very interesting paper on Sicilian surnames. My mother was born on the island of Salina, province of Messina. So I was delighted to learn that Messina is the top Italian surname. She was a Costa, and her mother was a Rugerra. The crossword puzzles I do for NIAF are Italian themed puzzles with 100% Italian related clues. Here is the clue I developed from reading your study.
    23) It is the most common place-name-derived-surname in all of Italy at 7,867. Of that total, 4,448 are found in Sicily. Hint: It is the third-largest city on the island of Sicily, and the 13th-largest city in Italy, with a population of more than 238,000.

    If you have a moment, check out my book website at: http://www.leonradomile.com
    I discovered that my Abruzzese surname turned out to be Bosnian and not Italian. Rado meaning ‘son of’ and mile meaning ‘soldier’ of ‘knight’ in medieval Latin. Rather than being a major disappointment, it served as a major inspiration for writing a 16th century adventure novel, screenplay adaptation, and producing a video booktrailer. Congratulations on your interesting Sicilian research. I hope to hear from you in the future. Mille grazie, Leone Radomile

    Reply

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