How Do You Spell That? (Finding Your Sicilian Ancestors)

How do you spell that?
I’ve reviewed factors that are important in determining an immigrant ancestor’s name as it was used in Sicily. Once the name is known it can be used in searching for other information about the person, that is, the other genealogic ‘keys’: date of immigration, date of birth, and town of birth.

Such searches may be undertaken at local libraries, churches, civil offices, genealogic societies and other repositories of paper documents, or they may be done on line using free or subscription sites like the free Mormon church site or the subscription site

Whatever form the search takes, be forewarned that even though you may think you know the ‘correct’ spelling of an ancestor’s name, it may be mis-spelled or mis-recorded in the documents you are searching.

Consider these errors to watch out for on records and indices:

Mis-spelling on original documents. Often our ancestors were illiterate. This meant that a name on a record, even an original record, was spelled in whatever way the clerk making out the document thought it should be spelled. If the record was made by someone who spoke a different language than your ancestor, as in census documents, even more errors could be introduced.

Mis-spelling by computer transcribers. When records are transcribed into on-line computer databases, the work is done by ‘indexers’ who read the original document and ‘digitize’ the information, so that it can be searched for by a person’s name. An image of the record is placed on line, and some sort of search engine is used for you to enter the name. If the name you enter is in the data base, the proper image of your ancestor’s document is displayed. However, the indexer may not be an Italian-speaker, and may not recognize archaic handwriting, so he may have transcribed the name incorrectly. If so, searching with the right name may not yield results!

Mis-spelling by sound. If the record is one for which an ancestor (even if literate) pronounced his name, but it was written by another person, as in a census or license application, that person may have mis-heard the name: Andolino for Andolina, De Marco for Di Marco, etc.

Mis-spelling by looks. An indexer unfamiliar with archaic handwriting and with Sicilian names may mistake one look-alike letter for another (u for n, j for i, i for e, etc.) A common error is to transpose i and u, spelling GUIDO as GIUDO, GIUSEPPE as GUISEPPE, and so on.

Switching given and surnames. Sicilians often said their surnames first, as in Alessi Rosa, Coniglio Gaetano, etc. An English-speaking clerk or indexer unfamiliar with this custom, and with the names themselves, might write the first name as the surname, and vice versa.

The moral of all this is that when you search for an ancestor’s record by name, don’t give up if you don’t get results for a name you “know” is right. Try spelling the name differently, as it would sound, or replace “i” by “e”, or try the person’s last name as the first name in the search, etc. Be flexible. You may be surprised how some of your ancestors’ names were listed!

Angelo Coniglio


…….. The Lady of the Wheel
Angelo Coniglio
Angelo Coniglio
Angelo F. Coniglio is a retired civil engineer and university adjunct professor. Today Angelo is a genealogy researcher and author of the historical novella The Lady of the Wheel, set in 1860s Sicily. Details on the book and information on ordering can be found at For genealogy questions, Coniglio may be contacted at Coniglio is a proud son of parents who emigrated to America from Serradifalco one hundred years ago. He has traced his family, as well as his wife's, back seven generations to the early 1700's, and each and every one was Sicilian. See his history of Sicily at Order the paperback or the Kindle version at

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  1. Hi Angelo.
    Fellow Alumni from LHS and wanted to get some direction on locating what my parents address was when they lived in Cattolica Ereclea Sicily about 100 yrs. ago because my sister is going there in a few weeks. What would be the best and fastest way to find tat out? My sister graduated with you and Angie. We missed the Aumni Picnic in August but God willing we will be there next year. Hope to get your response soon. Thanks R Bodami

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