Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

© ErN 46, Jeff Matthews entry Apr. 2003   

Unusual Names


My wife's friend goes to a cardiologist in Naples whose name is Adolfo Tedesco. That surname is not uncommon in Italy. It means "German". Geographic surnames indicating family origin back in the middle ages are common. The most striking one I know of in Naples is Ostrogoto— Ostrogoth—a name presumably traceable to the Germanic invasions of Italy at the fall of the Roman Empire. In similar fashion in the area of Baia on the Gulf of Naples, there are a number of compound surnames on the order of Scotto di (second element); that is: Scotto di Carlo, Scotto di Cerrottolo, Scotto di Tella, etc. While the surname Scotto (Scot) is not uncommon in Italy, the compounds derive, so they say (and I have this story from a gentleman by the name of Amerigo Scotto di Tella), from a shipwreck in the area centuries ago, when a band of Scottish seaman apparently liked the area so much, they decided to stay and marry into local families.

Back to Adolfo Tedesco. Adolf German. This was a very good name to have in Italy between 1933 and 1943. You can be certain that the doctor was born during those years. No doubt he has had to put up with good-natured —or maybe not so good-natured— ribbing since then, however.

A cursory stroll through the Naples telephone book reveals surnames from the slightly unorthodox Fava (Lima bean), Bavoso (slobbering) and Mezzatesta (half head) to sublime if unoriginal combinations of first and surname, such as Pasquale Pasquale (Easter Easter) and Domenico di Domenico (Sunday of Sunday). In between are surnames such as Moccio (Snot), Malavita (Organized Crime), Quattrocchi (Four Eyes), Violino (Violin), Malato (Sick), and Mangiaterra (Earth-eater). That last one is interesting; originally the name was Magnaterra (great land or property) and obviously meant "landholder". The gn was properly pronounced with the palatalized Spanish ñ sound (or the ny as in "canyon"); however, since the local dialect inserts the same sound into the Italian mangiare for "eat," people assumed that the name must have meant "earth eater" and not "land holder," so they "corrected"(!) the spelling. For no particular reason, I like the first and last name combinations of Armando Uomo (Man), Antonio Sesso (Sex), Fortunato Capodanno (Fortunate New Year) Sergio del Bufalo, Baldasare Della Confusione, Bianca Barba (White Beard), Felice Popolo (Happy People), Nello Albero (In The Tree) and one that must be challenging to live up to —Salvatore Delle Donne (Saviour of Women). Also, the building next to mine was built by an engineer with the unusual though not unique surname Della Morte (Of Death). Then his clever parents christened him Angelo. His name was Angel of Death. ("Uh, dear, what's your young gentleman's name? That's nice. Well, run along, but be back before the moon rises, won't you?")

The worst handle to have attached to your person in Italy is the surname Bocchino. Besides being the proper word for 'cigarette holder' or 'mouthpiece of a musical instrument', it is the vulgar slang term for 'fellatio'. There are seventeen of them in the Naples phone book, and an entire segment of a recent TV program was dedicated to the problems of a gentleman with that surname whose parents had seen fit to give him the first name of "Generoso".  There are also a number of entries in the local phone book for Zoccola. It means, precisely, 'slut', and a  newspaper article on this subject speculated that even if a man were perfect in all else, he might have difficulty in getting a woman to marry him, because no woman wants to be introduced in society as "Mrs. Slut". Almost as bad is the surname Mastronzo, since it contains the word stronzo, a vulgar word for a piece of excrement as well as the most common vulgar insult in Italian, equivalent to calling someone "asshole" in English. The phonebook contains a number of variations such as Mastranzo; the vowel change is almost certainly the result of a legal name change (which really does little else but get people to remark, "Gee, you must have changed your name, huh?").

A victim of a slightly different sort is Paolo Porcellini, whose surname means 'little pigs' and who has two brothers. It so happens that the Italian version of the famous Disney jingle 'Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf' starts 'Siam tre piccoli porcellini…' ('We are three little pigs'), rousing choruses of which, sung by mean-spirited classmates, inevitably awaited the Piglet Brothers on many a school day. Finally, other disconcerting Italian surnames are Piscione and Cacace, which evoke the acts of excretion; Schifone, which means 'most disgusting'; Cazzato, Cazzola, or Cazzoli, all of which recall the most common slang term for 'penis'; and Finocchio, the vegetable 'fennel', but also the common disparaging  term for 'homosexual'.

Why not, then, simply change your name? In Italy, there is an awesome battle of documents to be fought. In large Italian cities, about 6 or 7 people a year apply to modify their surname, 50 a year to change their surname completely, and 100 a year their first name. Even after the change, creating a new identity for yourself is so overwhelming that most simply forget about it. There are new driving licenses to get, insurance, bankbooks, tax forms, a new phone listing —in short, every shred of official paper with your name on it has to be amended. Worse, you have to  deal with the infamous Hall of Records 'Bureausaurus' (as they are so aptly nicknamed in Italy), someone who explains to you patiently that you can't get a document attesting to your new name unless you first present a document attesting to your new name.

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