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October 11, 2007 12:49 PM   Subscribe

Is there such a thing as a common Italian surname?

One thing I've noticed about Italian surnames is that, not only are they really intriguing, they apparently are unique unto themselves. You can almost always discern an Italian surname when you see it, and yet you rarely hear of two or more unrelated Italian families with the same last name. Think of all the people you know, famous or not, fictitious or real, with Italian surnames. Then try to think of whether you've ever met anyone else with that surname. E.g., have you ever met anyone with the last name Sinatra, Soprano, De Niro, Bompensiero, Moltisanti, Travolta, Pacino, Garafalo, DiMaggio, Mussolini, Fermi, Puzo, Fibonacci, Avogadro, Scorsese, Coppola, Pavarotti, Bocelli, Machiavelli, Iacocca, Ferrari, Eco, or Buttafuoco?

Why is this?
posted by yalestar to Society & Culture (28 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
Here's an interesting article about Italian surnames and their origins.
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 12:55 PM on October 11, 2007


I've met some of these.
posted by kittyprecious at 12:55 PM on October 11, 2007


Wikipedia seems to think that there are several common Italian surnames. Glancing at the list, it appears that only one (Ferrari) is on your list as well. It could be that, for whatever reason, many famous Italians and Italian-Americans do not have common surnames.

Of course, it is worth noting that that same article mentions that those 20 surnames only cover 1% of the Italian population, so perhaps there is something to you conjecture. For comparison, "Smith" alone makes up a hair over 1% of the US population.
posted by jedicus at 12:55 PM on October 11, 2007


...perhaps there is something to your conjecture...
posted by jedicus at 12:56 PM on October 11, 2007


Is there such a thing as a common Italian surname?

Yes. There are many extremely common Italian surnames. They are often regional names.

have you ever met anyone with the last name Sinatra, Soprano, De Niro, Bompensiero, Moltisanti, Travolta, Pacino, Garafalo, DiMaggio, Mussolini, Fermi, Puzo, Fibonacci, Avogadro, Scorsese, Coppola, Pavarotti, Bocelli, Machiavelli, Iacocca, Ferrari, Eco, or Buttafuoco?


Most of them, yes. I don't think I've ever met a Macchiavelli or a Mussolini.

Type some of those names into the white pages and see how many you come up with in the United States. Lots.

Lots of Italian names were altered at Ellis Island, and that can account for some variations. But Italy is a small country. There really aren't that many different Italian surnames.
posted by The World Famous at 12:58 PM on October 11, 2007


You might want to consider that Italian immigrants to the United States probably did not come from all regions of Italy in equal numbers or distribution.

To illustrate this, here's a (very cool) Italian surname map generator. insert the last name ("cognome") into the box at top left and check out the map. If you insert "Proetto", for example, you'll see that most Proettos live in Sicily, which makes sense, as that's where we're from. Click on the little maps under the name-entrance box to toggle between a physical geography map, a map shaded by how common the name is in a province, or a map featuring circles indicating how common a name is in a particular comune.
posted by mdonley at 12:58 PM on October 11, 2007 [8 favorites]


This unreferenced article supports your general claim.
posted by vacapinta at 12:59 PM on October 11, 2007


Moltisanti is a teacher at my son's school.

There are several Garofalo's (you've misspelled the name) in the Manhattan phone book, not to mention the owners of a chain of supermarkets in the Midwest.

There are dozens of Serrano's in the phone book, to give another random example.
posted by JimN2TAW at 1:01 PM on October 11, 2007


While reading your post, I thought, "hmm...what are the Italian equivalents to Jones, or Johnson, or Smith?" Anyone?
posted by wafaa at 1:12 PM on October 11, 2007


John Dimaggio does the voice of Bender in Futurama and is no relation to Joe.
posted by conifer at 1:16 PM on October 11, 2007


Nobody reads links around here, so I'll post the relevant part.

France probably has the greatest variety of surnames of any country in the world : about 900,000, including foreign names. Italy comes second with 350,000. But it is Belgium that has the greatest number per inhabitant, with 190,000 for a population 6x smaller than France or Italy. Italian surnames are spread out more evenly, and consequently have the smallest percentage of population represented in the 100 most common names.

If we exclude very rare surnames, name diversity can be roughly assessed by making the total percentage of people carrying the 10 (or 50, or 100) most common surnames in the country.
10 most common surnames by country (percentage of total population)
# Belgium : 2.03% (top 50 = 6.06% ; top 100 = about 9%)
# Denmark : 25.93%
# England & Wales : 5.7% (top 50 = 14.55% ; top 100 = 20.78% ; top 500 = 39.33%)
# Finland : 3.87%
# France : 1.89% (top 50 = about 6% ; top 100 = about 9%)
# Germany : 4.09%
# Italy : 0.67% (top 50 = 1.76%, top 100 = 2.55%)
# Netherlands : 3.99% (1947 data)
# Norway : 8.75%
# Poland : 2.87%
# Spain : 19.65%
# Sweden : 19.5%

Scandinavian countries and Spain clearly have fewer surnames, with about 1/4 to 1/5 of the people sharing the same 10 surnames only, against only 0.67% in Italy, about 2% in Belgium and France, and 4% in the Netherlands, Germany and Finland.

posted by vacapinta at 1:19 PM on October 11, 2007


Well I assume there are always 'trade' names that would be common all over the country. E.g. Smith= Ferrante or Ferranti. So whatever the Italian is for Cooper, Farmer, etc. should be quite common.
posted by Gungho at 1:29 PM on October 11, 2007


Yes, I've met several who share Italian surnames, though none but family with my mother's (Italian) maiden name.

My last name, being one of the top three in Spain, is much more prolific.
posted by cmgonzalez at 1:31 PM on October 11, 2007


I grew up in a region with plenty of 3rd-generation Italians, and there are plenty of common names. I've met people with some of the names on your list, not Iacocca, Machiavelli, or De Niro but many Coppolas (one is sitting at the desk dowstairs from me now) and Buttofoucos. Some of the names I've most commonly encountered:

Russo
Esposito
Bonfiglio
Carabetta
Grasso
Rizzo
Ricci
Vaccaro
Vaccarelli
Federici/Federico
Aiello
Pallone....

I could go on, but seems kind of silly. It's interesting to see how the diversity of Italian surnames are formed, but I don't think they're particularly diverse - it's not as though unrelated families don't share names in large numbers. They do. It may be a matter of having grown up where there was a significantly large Italian community, but I'd never have imagined that an Italian surname would be unique to a specific family.

Incidentally, I have also never met a Soprano and in fact had assumed that the word was chosen to represent a family name in the show without being vulnerable to suggestions that it portrays specific real criminals or crime families. It could be a real last name, I could be wrong, but until today I never considered the posisbility that it was a real surname. I just never happen to have met a Soprano.
posted by Miko at 1:32 PM on October 11, 2007


FWIW, I've met three unrelated Ferraris, none of whom had anything to do with luxury cars.
posted by desjardins at 1:41 PM on October 11, 2007


It's interesting to see how the diversity of Italian surnames are formed, but I don't think they're particularly diver

My brain isn't functioning - what a terrible sentence. I mean that while vacapinta's links show that there is a large diversity of names, it's not as though they're never repeated. 1% of a country's population is still a bunch of people, and as someone else pointed out, there is likely to be a greater concentration of similar names in the U.S. than on the Italian mainland, because immigration drew unevenly from different regions and classes.
posted by Miko at 1:44 PM on October 11, 2007


Response by poster: It may be a matter of having grown up where there was a significantly large Italian community

I suppose that probably accounts for my not having met another Sinatra, etc.. Where I live (Denver), there's a prominent Italian community, but of course nothing like that of most east coast cities.

We do, however, have a huge Hispanic population, and I could swear that there's only 12-15 unique surnames that you hear on a regular basis.

Thanks all for the interesting responses.
posted by yalestar at 1:47 PM on October 11, 2007


Response by poster: I don't think I've ever met a Macchiavelli or a Mussolini.

In the case of Mussolini, it's probably akin to having the name Hitler, i.e. you'd probably want to get a new name sooner than later...
posted by yalestar at 1:51 PM on October 11, 2007


Apparently my last name is [one of?] the most common in Italy. It seems to be shared by at least one other Mefite.
posted by rossination at 2:09 PM on October 11, 2007


Serie A offers an interesting alternative corpus. Two Coppolas, a few players with similar surnames that appear to be regional variants, three Zanettis, etc.
posted by holgate at 2:15 PM on October 11, 2007


mdonley, my guess is that the name "Proetto" was originally "Proietto" (as in changed in Sicily, not changed over here). In that case, it simply means "thrown out" and was used as a name for orphaned/foundling children -- like Esposito (exposed) and Innocenti (innocent).
Many Italian names are very regional. Most Pinnolas are from one or two very small towns in the Palermo province; Lachin is a Venetian name. yalestar may not have come across any Sinatras in Denver because the Italian community there was not settled from Sicily as much as New Jersey was. (Or from the same town; I can name 4 towns, all in Sicily, which supplied most of the Italian immigrants to Dallas.)
posted by katemonster at 2:28 PM on October 11, 2007


good point, most of those names are unfamiliar in my social circle too. from that, it looks like italian has more diversity of surname, than say, korean.

but there are some common italian names i've encountered multiple times:
giorgio, antonio, serra, rossi, ricci, fiore
di marco, di giovanni, di pietro, di guiseppe
posted by twistofrhyme at 3:00 PM on October 11, 2007


Interesting post, and thanks for the link, mdonley - although it just confirmed what I already knew about how unique my surname is.

To add to the actual question, I've run into a couple of completely unrelated families with the same (italian) surname, and in terms of famous ones, a couple of Ferraris with no connection to the famous ones.

Another thing to watch for is the simple "of [placename]" type surname that (I think) is more common in Italian than English-derived names. DiRoma, DiNapoli, DiMilano literally translate as "Of Rome", "Of Naples" and "Of Milan".
posted by Nice Guy Mike at 3:09 PM on October 11, 2007


Twistofrhyme's post reminded me of another set of "of [name]" formulations:

di marco, di giovanni, di pietro, di guiseppe

Are all derived from people's names, and would translate as "of Mark" (i.e. Markson), "of John" (i.e. Johnson), "of Peter" (Peterson) and "of Joseph" (Josephson, but I'm sure you've got the idea by now), respectively.
posted by Nice Guy Mike at 3:15 PM on October 11, 2007


he simple "of [placename]" type surname that (I think) is more common in Italian than English-derived names

This site says "More than half the English surnames used today derive from geographic descriptions, such as Churchill. Various suffixes which indicate a topographical feature are lee (meadow), bank, don (town), field, house, and thorp (village)."

I also think of Irish surnames, which incorporate a lot of patronymic and geographic references. I think the problems of naming are pretty consistent culture to culture, and you can find similar solutions occurring in various places.
posted by Miko at 3:50 PM on October 11, 2007


Scandinavian countries and Spain clearly have fewer surnames, with about 1/4 to 1/5 of the people sharing the same 10 surnames only.

That's because patronyms were still common until very recently. It's one of the main reasons I quit doing genealogy - Jensen after Jensen after Jensen.

One note is that Esposito is a traditional Italian (regional?) foundling name. It should be more common than many.

You could try looking at This Wikipedia category.

I wonder if there's a bit of a confirmation bias going on, perhaps - there's only about 6% heritage Italian population in the US, so unless you move among large numbers, you won't necessarily see unrelated people. You'll see groups that come from the same region, they're related to each other (2nd, 3rd cousins), and unless you're in the area with the places that the other famous people's families settled in, you don't necessarily see those names at all. (Like they mentioned with the Sinatra.)

(There is also a slight weird effect that can happen with immigration, other than simplification or changing - my very uncommon Italian last name is often mistaken for Brazillian by people from South/Central America because a bunch of us immigrated to Brazil, and a bunch to CT. The Brazilians had bigger families and a few star footballers.)
posted by cobaltnine at 4:26 PM on October 11, 2007


Another thing to watch for is the simple "of [placename]" type surname that (I think) is more common in Italian than English-derived names. DiRoma, DiNapoli, DiMilano literally translate as "Of Rome", "Of Naples" and "Of Milan".

Or immigrant nationalities like Grieco/Greco, Catalano, Franco, Granato, etc.
posted by LionIndex at 4:28 PM on October 11, 2007


mdonley, my guess is that the name "Proetto" was originally "Proietto" (as in changed in Sicily, not changed over here). In that case, it simply means "thrown out" and was used as a name for orphaned/foundling children -- like Esposito (exposed) and Innocenti (innocent).

Katemonster, I had no idea! And I've done a bunch of research back four generations, too, and this has never come up...maybe the original "thrown out" ancestor was hundreds of years ago!

posted by mdonley at 6:48 PM on October 11, 2007


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