Sunday, April 17, 2011

What's In a Name?

As you already know, my name is Valerie.  My parents chose this name after much debate; they finally drew the name out of a hat, while I and the doctor awaited their decision...three days after I was born.  It's not a bad name, and according to baby name books, it means "strong," which I like. 

I'm the only Valerie in the village.  In Ascoli Piceno, all my friends immediately took to calling me Valeria, the Italian pronunciation, which was fine with me.  The name is the same, after all; just a little more musical.  Here in Basilicata, though, I have found that they prefer to say my name as it is spelled and pronounced in English (or French, as they say it dervies from that language).  "Your name is your identity, we want to say it properly," they tell me.  I think it's sweet.

Bryan has a little more difficulty.  Whereas Valerie at least has an Italian equivalent, his name is completely unfamiliar and takes a little more explaining.  They want to know the Italian version as a point of reference, which doesn't exist.  The closest we mustered during our residence in Ascoli was Bruno, which was a little fortuitous because the saint day for San Bruno also happens to be Bryan's birthday.  Here, Bryan is often given the French pronunciation "Bree-an". 

The local name base is rather limited.  There is a strong tradition in Italy, particularly in the south, to name the firstborn child after the paternal grandfather (or maternal grandmother for the girls) and then the second child after the maternal grandfather (or paternal grandmother).  Therefore, names get recycled generation after generation so that you have un sacco di gente (a ton of people) with the same names.  In our village, for example, the vast majority of males are named Antonio, Giuseppe or Michele (and are called by derivitives thereof, such as Tonino, Anton, Peppe, or Peppino).  The women are mostly named Antonietta, Maria and Carmella.  This leads to a lot of confusion in conversations, which go something like this: 
"So I was talking to Giuseppe the other day..."
"Which Giuseppe?"
"Giuseppe Russo."
"The son of Rocco or the son of Maria?"
"The son of Rocco."
"Ah, Peppe, you mean."
"Yeah, like I was saying..."

For those of us not born and raised here, who don't yet know all the intricacies of familial ties and interconnections, we frequently don't know the qualifying parents to understand which Giuseppe (or Michele or Antonio) they are referring to.  The qualifiers are a bit of a hassle for locals, too, which is why almost everyone has a sopranome, or nickname.  Hence, there is a Michele known as Michelino (little Mike) because, in humorous irony, he's a really big guy.  Then there's a Giuseppe who is nicknamed Champagne, but haven't been able to figure out why.  Our friend Sandro (one of the few original names in the village) is nicknamed Micino (little kitten) because his dad (Michele) is nicknamed Gattone (big cat). 

Piano piano we're learning the sopranomi of our friends and neighbors and the stories behind them.  We are also figuring out how they are all connected, because everyone but everyone is related- either directly, through marriage, or in a long-distance lineage- somehow to everyone else.  Even me.  We discovered that I am a distant cousin of a certain Maria, connected through our paternal lines to my ancestral village of Anzi.  She couldn't be more thrilled and calls me Cugina.

While I'm sometimes referred to as la professoressa, the sopranome most commonly heard in reference to us is, naturally, gli americaniVa buo', can't change that big qualifier; we're the only ones here.  At least we've never heard of any negative far!

Interestingly, while other regions lend the regional name to the people - Toscani (Tuscany), Abruzzese (Abruzzo) or Siciliani (Sicily), the residents of Basilicata are not called Basilicatesi...they are Lucani.  The ancient name for this region was Lucania and there is a still a very strong bond and identity in that history.  A person is una Lucana or un Lucano- proudly and maybe a bit defiantly, staking their roots to the ancient people who predated the Romans and Magna Grecia.

I was reminded of the beauty of names and nicknames yesterday at a book signing.  A local writer, who is also one of my English students, signed my copy - To the Americana with a Lucana soul.  I think that pretty much sums it up.


Grace said...

I can absolutely empathize with Bryan. My name is Grace, which, although is a lovely name in English, does not translate so pretty in most languages. My French professors always make sure to try to pronounce my name in the English way, because the French pronunciation would be essentially be "Grass", which doesn't sound so great. My Italian professor calls me Gracia from time to time, which isn't quite as bad.

While I can only imagine the confusion of learning all of the sopranomi, there is something beautiful in the connectedness of Basilicata. They seem to be proud of their roots, and their family connections. It's something you don't see as much here in the US.

Colleen said...

"To the Americana with a Lucana soul" Wow, what a wonderful compliment. That coment must have made your day.

JB McMunn said...

Could have been worse. You might have been named Alice and known locally as "the anchovy".

I think the Scots have a similar problem so you have Andy, Big Andy, and Wee Andy.

Marian said...

I am proud to be the friend of "the American with the Lucana soul"

A beautiful piece, Valerie.

(BTW: Did I ever point out that there is a beautiful Italian version of my full married name: "Mariana Monterossi!"

Valerie said...

Grace - We do love the sense of "rootedness" here. Grazia is a fairly common derivitive for Grace. With all the Marias here, they always have a middle name,such as Maria Grazia, Maria Lucia, etc.

Colleen - It made my week! :)

JB - So true, one of the few names that sounds worse in Italian is Alice! In Ohio they have sopranomi like Spud and Pork. Big Andy is much nicer!

Mariana Monterossi - che bellissimo nome! You have a bit of an Italian soul, too, mi sembra ;)

moltobrava said...

hi. since i was a little girl in scotland I have always wanted a more romantic version of my name anne. ( I was pleased to have an e on it like anne of green gables) but now living in Pisticci I am normally called anna which is just perfect.

Evey said...

what a lovely story, thanks

Valerie said...

Anna - it's especially lovely how they draw out the double n's in Annnnna. (Love Pisticci!)

Evey - Grazie, bella. Quando scendi quaggiu'??

LindyLouMac in Italy said...

Great explanation Valerie.:)

Anonymous said...

A lovely explanation of the sopranome mindfield.

My favourite's amongst my neighbours include sciacc uchert (exploding lizard in local dialect) polpettone (meatloaf) and natalone (big Christmas).

For years my husband and I were called a combination of our names, so Gillmany or Jellermary or some refer to us as something similarish and suitably Italian, i.e., Angelina or Geronimo. Most have got the hang of Gilly and Jeremy now though :-)

Lovely blog BTW.