In Search of our Ancestry: Butcher, Baker, Basket Maker

      I’ve discussed early traditions for determining given names for Italian children.  Today, most names consist of one or more given names combined with family names, or surnames. Surnames are a relatively recent phenomenon in human history.  Nobility and landowners may have had identifying names besides their given names, but ordinary residents of most countries didn’t use surnames until they were required by law, some not until the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  Combining the ‘given’ name with a surname identified an individual within a family, and resulted in the ‘John Smith’ type of name we’re now familiar with.

      I have spoken about the Sicilian naming convention for first names.  Surnames developed differently  These conventions could differ widely between countries.  I won’t go into those here but I’ll discuss the general use and meanings of Italian surnames, as well as another widespread custom, that of using ‘nicknames’ to identify people.

      Early surnames, in any locality, identified a person by some physical attribute, such as Long, Short or White; or an occupation like Butcher, Baker or Cooper; or a place of origin – Calabrese,Palermoor Licata. Some were based on parentage or ancestry – Johnson, Svenssen, Di Carlo, Di Francesco, etc..  This table gives Italian surnames, and examples of names with the same meaning in English other languages.

Italian English French German
Cestaio Weaver Tisserand Weber
Derived  Molinaro Miller Meunier Müller
from Occupation: Macellaro Butcher Boucher Fleischman
Ferraro Smith (from ‘blacksmith’) Forgeron Schmied
Furnaro Baker Boulanger Bäcker
Derived  Russo Redd Laroux Rotkopf
from Appearance: Bellanca White Leblanc Weiss
Bruno Brown Lebrun Braun
Nero Black Le Noir Schwarz
Lo Curto Short Lecourt Kurz
Luongo Long Long Lang
Piccolo Little Petit Klein


     If searching for an ancestor fromItaly, remember that not just the given name but the surname may have been anglicized.  For example, if your Italian grandfather went by the name Anthony Smith, you may have to search passenger manifests and Italian birth records for Antonio Ferraro, and so on.

      The naming conventions in Italyand especially Sicilyoften resulted in numerous people in a town or community with exactly the same name, both given name and surname.  Methods were adopted to differentiate between such individuals.  For example, there might be three boys in the same town, all named Pietro Coniglio; one short, one fat, and one red-haired.  They might be nicknamed lo Curto, lo Grasso and lo Russo; or Shorty, Fatty, and Red. These nicknames would then result in their names being given as Pietro Coniglio lo Curto, Pietro Coniglio lo Grasso, and Pietro Coniglio lo Russo.   Often, to identify the offspring and descendants of these individuals, the nickname was applied to them as well, and in some cases, the original surname might be dropped, and the family name became the surname.   So the grandson of Pietro Coniglio lo Grasso might be known, commonly and officially, as Pietro Grasso.

      These identifying names are called sopranomi (nicknames) or ‘nciurie (‘insults’, because they were often derogatory).   In many towns, a man’s associates might not even know his actual surname.     Unfortunately, the evolution of nicknames into accepted surnames is not well documented.  But knowing a person’s nickname can be very helpful if you visit his birthplace, where living descendants or neighbors might recall the connection.  Often, even if the nicknames were not officially adopted, several generations of a family carried the same nickname.

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

Related Articles

Stay Connected

Digital nomads? Time off? Retiring? Here your place.. in Sicilyspot_img

Latest Articles