Italian last names, poop related, started as a joke?
January 21, 2017 7:10 PM   Subscribe

I have a half-remembered anecdote from a Latin lecture about a number of (I beleive middle age or earlier) peasants being asked/made to have last names where they had not previously been allowed to/bothered with, and a lot of them chose really sophomoric names that mean "Poop-lover" or things of this nature. I recall it being regional, and I think I might be conflating multiple events. Details inside.

So, I'm pretty sure it's one of two possible variations on a story here, and both are pretty detailed in my head so I might be misremembering things. The professor might have mentioned multiple events, this was a pretty jokey lecture. This is what I recall.

A bunch of peasants who lived in tiny villages didn't really bother with last names, as no one had any significant property (or were possibly serfs and thus had no property, part of the possible conflation) and it wasn't necessary to distinguish people in such small communities. At some point, whatever ruling body decides either to conduct a census of their their peasant villagers to be better able to tax them or wants to better manage their serf population. To do this, they ask for a last name, which they as wealthier folk from cities have and expect everyone to have, but the villagers don't really understand. Because they either don't want to be taxed and are angry, or are serfs and just broadly displeased with that whole situation, they decide to make up ridiculous names either as a fuck you or as a joke.

I think it's a regional thing, like in one specific valley this occurred or something, and it's managed to be noticeable still today.
Pretty sure it was either Italy or somewhere on its fringes. Pretty sure it was in a mountainous region, and fairly remote.
The names are like a child's insults or made-up profanity, I can't remember any specific examples, but 'large turd', 'he who farts gladly', 'tiny penis' are sorta the level I remember. Lotta poop, butt and dick jokes.
If I recall, it's also still noticeable today, where she happened to be visiting this area for a while and just kept noticing a ton of joke last names and did some research and then mentioned it once in class because an amusing roman era name came up and it was related.
This could have happened anywhere, in multiple places, at really any time. I think it's a census thing though.

This came up because I'm pretty sure I had a client today whose name means "Poop smell" in Italian, that's all.
posted by neonrev to Society & Culture (7 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
The story is that it's the Dutch with funny last names to annoy Napoleon.
posted by klangklangston at 7:12 PM on January 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

And just to be clear, that's a myth about the Napoleonic names.
posted by klangklangston at 7:18 PM on January 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

It's for sure not that, but I did know that story and that might be where the census part came in, but not really having last names is pretty common across the world for people of a certain lifestyle of all times. Pretty sure it's middle ages Italy, and Italian language names, the combination of perfect Italian accent on the names and the dull midwest accent on the translations is why I remember this anecdote.
posted by neonrev at 7:28 PM on January 21, 2017

I heard the same story about Dutch last names when I met someone with the surname Posthumus.
posted by crazylegs at 7:53 PM on January 21, 2017

Incidentally, the opposite thing happened in Mongolia, where the Communists tried to undermine local structures by forcing everyone to drop their last names. There are apparently still a lot of people there with only one name.
posted by crazylegs at 7:54 PM on January 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

Sorry I can't help with that specific story, but a lot of Latin names, and later Italian names can sound pretty silly to our ears if translated literally. The great orator Cicero? You can translate that as "chickpea" or better yet "garbanzo bean".

Nothing against Italians, of course. Our English and other European names can be just as crazy. My own Danish last name, filtered through millennia of English and French occupancy, originally meant "Thor's Hostage." So I have that going for me.
posted by seasparrow at 8:21 PM on January 21, 2017 [2 favorites]

I too have heard almost literally the exact same story related to Napoleon and the Dutch.
posted by frumiousb at 8:58 PM on January 21, 2017

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