The anglicization of Italian surnames

The anglicization of Italian surnames

Why was my ancestor’s name changed during immigration?

The popular perception is that U.S. immigration officials deliberately changed a person’s name if they couldn’t understand the verbal information relayed to them by the immigrant. In fact, this is one of the biggest myths surrounding immigration history in the U.S. Federal immigration agents were never authorized to change anyone’s name.

Most immigration passenger arrival lists were not prepared by U.S. officials, they were instead filled out by the vessel master or shipping company before the vessel left Europe. Any mistakes in spelling or name alterations likely happened then, not after the immigrants arrived at Castle Garden or Ellis Island. 1

These stories were often a way to fill in the blanks of an ancestor, or to compensate for missing Ellis Island records of a particular family member.  2

Surnames were not changed at Ellis Island. Immigration officials only checked the people passing through the island against the records of the ship on which they arrived—records that were created at the time of departure, not arrival.

Although names were not changed when immigrants arrived on Ellis Island, immigrant name changes did happen. The reasons for someone to change their name were varied, with common themes surrounding the fresh start they hoped to have in their new home. 3

According to a MyHeritage blog note, this myth originated with the movie The Godfather when at Ellis Island they changed the name of Vito Corleone upon arrival. And that even some Ellis Island tour guides perpetuate this myth. 4

There are thousands of anglicized Italian surnames in the United States. Why was my ancestor’s name changed during immigration?

Italian Emigration Surname Changes

The surname of your Italian ancestors may have changed as they assimilated into their new home country. Tracking down original birth records for your ancestors, as well as other Italian records such as marriages, christenings, deaths, and so on, can give you clues about how your surname has changed.

Watch for these changes on documents in the countries where your Italian ancestors immigrated to. If you are still exploring records, try to locate your ancestor on a passenger list such as those from the United States, Canada, South America, including Brazil.

Understanding the meaning and origin of your surname could be a key to locating an exact place of origin for your ancestors because certain surnames exist only in certain localities in Italy or are more commonplace to specific regions of the country.

The anglicization of italian surnames

According to Fucilla, there are thousands of anglicized Italian surnames in the United States. Italian surnames in North America had changes such as: 5

  • translations
  • dropping of final vowels
  • analogical changes
  • French influences
  • decompounded and other clipped forms
  • honetic respellings

Translations

Most Italian surnames were anglicized by translation. Many surnames derived from baptismal names have English equivalents and were translated into English.

  • Bonifazio –> Boniface
  • Lorenzi –> Lawrence
  • Martini –> Martin
  • Olivieri –> Oliver

Some of these surnames lost the preposition di, de or the article la when the change is made, but, in general, where these particles are a part of the original they are usually retained intact:

  • Di Giorgio –> De George
  • De Giovanni –> De John
  • De Marco –> De Mark

In addition to the translation, these surnames take on an s in imitation of the possessive ending so common in English and German patronymics

  • De Clemente –> De Clements
  • De Michele –> De Michaels
  • De Pietro –> De Peters
  • Alberti –> Alberts
  • Riccardi –> Richards
  • Roberti –> Roberts

Surnames derived from nicknames that were translated:

  • Mastropaolo –> Masterpaul
  • Mastrogiulio –> Masterjulius
  • Mastroberto –> Masterbert

Surnames derived from nicknames were also translated:

  • Bevilacqua –> Drinkwater
  • Bianco –> White
  • Piccolo –> Little
  • Scaramuccia –> Scaramouche
  • Vinciguerra –> Winwar

as well as surnames derived from professions or occupations

  • Barbieri –> Barber
  • Mercante –> Merchant
  • Molinari –> Miller
  • Lo Prete –> Priest

Translations of surnames derived from names of geographical places are very frequent:

  • Napoli –> Naples
  • Spagna –> Spain
  • Francese –> French
  • Chiesa –> Church
  • Casalegni –> Woodhouse
  • Palazzo –> Palace

Occasionally, it is possible to find surnames that look like translations but have no connection to their originals except in spelling or sound:

  • Artieri –> Artery (trader)
  • La Liberta –> La Liberty  (a font name)
  • Monopoli –> Monopoly  (a place name)
  • Pepitone, Pipituni  –> Peptone (a bird name)
  • Speziale –> Special  (dealer in spices)
  • Ciancio –> Change a pet-name form of Vincenzo

The Effect of Immigration on Surnames

Immigrants changed their names by accident or by design. Other languages had letter combinations not found in English, or letters pronounced as other letters in the English language.

According to Fucilla’s analysis 6, one of the ways Italian surnames were anglicized was through loss of the final vowel.

Dropping of final vowels

At times, in addition to the translation, this type take on an s in imitation of the possessive ending so common in English and German patronymics:

  • Bacigalupo –> Bacigalup
  • Dirienzi –> Dirienz
  • De Biasi –> De Bias
  • De Gustanzi –> De Gustanz
  • Occhigrossi –> Occhigross
  • and hundreds of others

This is in accordance with one of the most characteristic word features of the English language, the consonantal ending. In this case the English themselves long ago set up models by their treatment of the names of the great Italian cities — Milan, Turin, Venice, the names of great Italian writers, Petrarch, Machiavel, Guicciardin, and names which were long ago transplanted on English soil, such as Jessup and Tolliver which derive from Giuseppe and Tagliaferro.

Some names with consonantal endings tend to follow the model furnished by a group of English names in -ell, -el, such as Bartell, Bartel, Pennell, Purcell, Terrell, Terrel.

  • Battistelli –> Battistell
  • Bertelli –> Bertell
  • Capparell –> Capparelli
  • Lucarel –> Lucarelli
  • Borrelli –> Borrell

The addition of a consonant to a name ending in a vowel is extremely rare; Fucilla found it in only three instances:

  • Grecol –> Greco
  • Matrangol –> Matrango
  • Garofolow –> Garofolo

Something of a freak is Johngrass, the first part of which is a translation and the second drops its final vowel. Not so long ago this cognomen was Giangrasso.

  1.  Family History Friday: The real scoop about name changes in immigration records. – https://narations.blogs.archives.gov/2009/12/18/family-history-friday-the-real-scoop-about-name-changes-in-immigration-records/
  2.  Your Immigrant Ancestors & Ellis Island Name Changes – Fact or Fiction? – https://blog.genealogybank.com/your-immigrant-ancestors-ellis-island-name-changes-fact-or-fiction.html
  3. Your Immigrant Ancestors & Ellis Island Name Changes – Fact or Fiction? – https://blog.genealogybank.com/your-immigrant-ancestors-ellis-island-name-changes-fact-or-fiction.html
  4. Ellis Island: Was your name changed? – https://blog.myheritage.com/2017/11/ellis-island-was-your-name-changed/
  5. The Anglicization of Italian Surnames in the United States. Joseph G. Fucilla. American Speech Vol. 18, No. 1 (Feb., 1943), pp. 26-32 (7 pages)
  6. The Anglicization of Italian Surnames in the United States. Joseph G. Fucilla. American Speech Vol. 18, No. 1 (Feb., 1943), pp. 26-32 (7 pages)