I’m often asked questions related to genealogical searches for Sicilian immigrant ancestors. Usually what these have in common is a lack of specifics, as:
“Could you help me locate information on my grandmother? Her name was Margaret Polito, and she came to America with her father James Polito and mother Mary, from Sicily, in about 1911.”
There is little that anyone can help with in this case, based on the small amount of information provided. Before we can find original (that is, from their native land) birth, marriage, or death records, we need the following key pieces of information about any ancestor:
- Name (in its original language);
- the Date of immigration to America;
- Birth date;
- Place (town and nation) of birth.
Considering these ‘keys’, I would respond to the above question in this way: “So far, you have only parts of the required information about your grandmother: her surname and an Americanized given name, the year of her immigration; no birth date; and her birth country, but not the town.”
Starting with the Name: If your grandmother was born in “Sicily”, it’s unlikely that her given name was Margaret. Possibilities are Margarita or Margherita. Check family records (or memories), to see if she was referred to as Margherita or another Italian variation. Believe it or not, her actual name may have been Domenica (doh-MAIN-ih-kuh), shortened to Mamie, then Maggie, then ‘upgraded’ to Margaret! Further, her parents’ names in Italy would not have been James and Mary. James is the English form of Giacomo, and also a common “substitute” name for Vincenzo. Any searches you do of Italian records or immigration records should use the Italian variations of the given names. Early census records also may give the “Sicilian” names, before they were Americanized, but watch for mis-spellings.
Knowing your relative’s name in its original language is important. Before you start searching old records, try to determine the right name and spelling. Below is a short list of given names in English, with Sicilian names from which they may have been derived, and a pronunciation guide, in which the emphasized syllable is shown in CAPITALS. Note that vowels in Italian have the following sounds: A is “ah”; E is “ay” or “eh”; I is “ih” or “ee”; O is “oh”, and U is “oo”. “ A, E, I, O, U” in Sicilian is “ah, eh, ee, oh, oo”!! The English sound of I (“long i” as in “eye”) is given by the combination “ai” in Sicilian. .
Some names were translated literally. Filippo (fih-LEE-poh), became Philip, Giovanni (jo-VAHN-nee) means John, and Michele (mee-KAY-lay) is Michael. But many names were not translated. Felice (fay-LEE-chay) means Happy (Felix), but often in America it was modified to Phil or Philip. Sometimes the name was difficult to pronounce, or one prominent syllable of the name became the basis for the Americanized name. For example, Vincenzo (veen-CHAINZ-oh) became James. Sometimes the person was given a nickname that was later transmuted into a completely different name. Barbaro (BAR-buh-roh) became Bob, which then became Robert, and Alfonso became Al, then Albert or Alfred. Diego (dee-AY-goh) became Dick, then Richard; Salvatore (meaning ‘savior’) became Sam, then Samuel.
In Italian, traditional male and female names had different endings, signifying gender. This USUALLY meant a man’s name ended in “o” and a woman’s in “a”, e.g. Angelo and Angela, Vincenzo and Vincenza; Pietro and Pietra, Calogero and Calogera, Antonino and Antonina, Gaetano and Gaetana, etc.
Exceptions to this rule include: Giovanni and Giovanna; Michele and Michela, Felice and Felicia; and Giuseppe and Giuseppa. Sometimes a man’s name does end in “a” as in Nicolá (Nicholas), a variant of which is Nicoló. The feminine form of Nicolá or Nicoló is Nicolina. An interesting name is Andrea (Andrew), which is from the Greek root ‘andros’, meaning ‘man’. Andrea means ‘manly’, and in Italy and Sicily it was exclusively a man’s name: there was no feminine form. See my page at http://www.conigliofamily.com/ItalianNames.htm for a more complete list of given names in English and Italian.