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what's in a name?
researching our italian surnames

By Deborah K. Millemaci
(return to genealogy)

Uncovering the clues of our ancestors can be exciting but can also present complex issues we may not have anticipated. One of these "stumbling blocks" can be the information surrounding our family surnames. Years ago in many areas of Italy, it was quite common for people to have only a first name. As populations of the towns and villages increased, it became difficult for the tax assessors to keep track of people who had paid their taxes. To alleviate this problem a law was created that stated all people would be required to have a surname or cognome. Thus, people began using the name of their town or village as their surname.

your last name
in italy:

Enter any last name in the box below, and hit the find it button.

your last name
in america:

Enter any last name in the box below, and hit the "find it" button.

Upon their arrival in the U.S. many Italian immigrants encountered variations to their surnames. There were several reasons for this - the most common one being the inability of immigrants to spell their names. They were deemed as illiterate and customs officials would spell names as they sounded. Extra letters were added and/or deleted in many cases. Another reason for variation was the Italian immigrant´┐Żs wish to be accepted into society, and to do this they would "Americanize" their surnames. Vowels at the end of a name were dropped so that their name would sound more American. Names were also shortened to make them simpler. Some Italian men also changed their names completely in order to avoid mandatory military service in Italy. This was especially true during World War I.

One more thing to look for is the variety of spellings your name may have. I will use my last name as an example. I have come across the following deviations when researching my name: Millemaci (original spelling), Mallamaci, Millimaci, Millamaci, Millemacchi, and Millimoci.

Family naming traditions in most families were as follows: the first born son received the name of his paternal grandfather, the second son was named after the maternal grandfather, the third son would inherit the name of his maternal great-grandfather, etc. Names of great-uncles were also passed down through generations to the remaining children in the family. My father and his brothers were all named in this way.

These are just a few things you should keep in mind when tracing the history of your Italian surname. You may also come across a unique meaning or story behind the origin of your name, so be prepared to explore all possibilities!

©Deborah K. Millemaci - 2002
No part of this article may be reproduced in any form without written permission from the author.


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