Choosing a name for your baby is hard work. You need to consider that they will live with this name for the rest of their life: as a cute baby, through the trying years of being a teenager, and finally as an adult with a job. There are millions of names to choose from with an array of etymologies; It’s daunting to have to choose just one or two.
For Italians throughout history, however, choosing a name for a baby was a much simpler task. You might have noticed, through your genealogy research, that family members seem to have the same names passed down through the generations. That’s because there’s a tradition in Italy that often dictates how a child is named.
This naming tradition is enormously helpful for our research because it allows us to guess the names of ancestors in the preceding or proceeding generation. Before we get into that, let’s look at how the traditional Italian naming convention works.
The Traditional Italian Naming Convention:
• The first son was named after his paternal grandfather
• The first daughter was named after her paternal grandmother
• The second son was named after his maternal grandfather
• The second daughter was named after her maternal grandmother
After giving the four grandparents names to their children, the parents were then free to choose the names of their subsequent children. Parents might use their own name or pick the name of a saint, brother, sister, or friend.
Here’s an example:
In order, Giuseppe and Giuseppa’s children were born Anna (1880), named after Giuseppe’s mother Anna Musicò. Next came Paolo (1882), named after Giuseppe’s father Paolo Sulfaro. Following him was Antonino (1885), named after Giuseppa’s father Antonino Sulfaro. Then Maria (1887), named after Giuseppa’s mother Maria Catalfamo.
Giuseppe and Giuseppa went on to have four more children: Salvatore (1889), Giovanni Natale (1892), Teresa (1894) and Francesca (1896). They were all named after siblings, even combining Giuseppe’s brother’s name and Giuseppa’s brother’s name to form “Giovanni Natale”.
Of course, in every tradition, there are exceptions:
• If a child died in infancy their name could be given to the next child born with the same gender. That’s why it’s important not to assume the names of ancestors who have not yet been discovered through records, because the second son may have his paternal grandfather’s name, if the first son died before the second son was born.
• When a father died before his son was born, the mother might give the father’s name to the child, as a sign of respect. But in most cases, the child would still be named after a grandparent and instead carry the father’s name as a nickname.
• If a child was orphaned at an early age, or abandoned, they would likely not have known their parents names and could not pass them on to their children. In these cases the first son and first daughter were named after the mother’s parents, if she knew their names, and then any subsequent children were simply given names that the mother and father liked.
How to apply this information to your research
With the knowledge that most families followed this tradition you can make an educated guess as to the name of your ancestor’s parents based on the names (in birth order) that they gave to their children. You can let this guide your research if you’re trying to break through a brick wall in your research. However, you must take care. If you do not know all of the children’s names then you wrongly assume the order of birth, and therefore the name of your ancestors parents.
Do you have a name in your tree that has been passed down for generations? How far back can you trace this name? Let us know in the comments!