You, too, are an honorary Italian

I apologize in advance to my Italian readers who may find this post terribly cliché or just simple-minded on my part. But this is one of those things that, as an American and an outsider, I find both endlessly entertaining and somehow frustrating.

Something that absolutely cracks me up in Milan is the way American names have been used to name streets. Two examples come immediately to mind. Via Giorgio Washington and Via Tommaso Edison. Yes, you read that correctly. Giorgio and Tommaso—both great Americans. Apparently it was the tradition before the internet turned us all into citizens of a very polyglotty world, to call foreigners by the combination of their Italian-ized given name and their actual family name. That makes me Carlotta, a name which I like, but which doesn’t in the least fit who I actually am.

(NOTE: Italians don’t actually force the name Carlotta onto me, but they do struggle a bit with the pronunciation of Charlotte. The way we Anglo-saxons swallow the second syllable just isn’t easy for an Italian to do. Every syllable is important and plays a part in their musical language. So I get called Char-LOT quite, well, a lot. Or CHAR-LOT, where the syllables bear equal weight and the “char” comes out as it would in the word char-broiled. Such is life.)

But back to the amusement at hand. The illustrious gentlemen above, aside from the Giorgio and the Tommaso I’ve already mentioned, would therefore have been called Andrea Jackson, Abramo Lincoln, and Alessandro Hamilton. Some of your names, in case you’re curious, are as follows:

Janet – Gianna
Suzi – Susi (short for Susanna)
Anne – Anna and Anne – Anna
John – Gianni
Diane, Diana – Diana (with the i being pronounced like a long e)
Cecilia – Cecilia (except those c’s are pronounced ch)
Michele – Micaela
Daniel – Daniele (and that nickname, Catfish, would be “pesce gatto”)
Judith – Giuditta
Ginger – Zenzero (this is a direct translation, using the word for the spicy root, but this name doesn’t exist in Italian…

…which leads me to another peculiarity of Italian naming. If I’ve understood correctly, you can’t just go off and, like Frank Zappa, choose Moon Unit for a name. Or Spike. Or Edge. You have to petition for the right to do so. I have an Italian friend who wanted to name her daughter Andrea, even though it’s considered a boy’s name, because she liked the sound of it. To hear her tell it, there was no end to the bureaucracy involved, and fortunately, she was victorious in the end. (Maybe things have changed. I humbly invite any Italian readers to correct me on this.)

I can’t blame her for undertaking the struggle. I’ve always found the pool of Italian names limiting—all being connected more or less to saints (though there was a spike in the 70’s in the use of names, such as Kevin, which were made popular by American TV shows). Being a Southerner, I miss the use of last names as first names. It was lovely growing up surrounded by strong, interesting women named Nelson and Wallis. It’s hard to get enthusiastic about and-yet-another Francesca no matter how lovely a person she may be, and then there’s the problem of how to keep them all straight. Which Francesca is on the other end of the phone saying, “Hi, it’s me, Francesca”?

Sometimes I like the Italian version of a name better than I like the English one, and vice versa. I like William, but I’m not crazy about Guglielmo. I don’t love Hilary, but I think Ilaria is a spectacular name. And so it goes. If you’d like to have your name or user name translated, let me know. I’d love to try!

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15 Responses to You, too, are an honorary Italian

  1. Thanks for this thought-provoking piece.

    Via Giorgio Washington and Via Tommaso Edison are OK, since they abbreviate to Via G. Washington and Via T. Edison. What got to me was Via G. Shakespeare. G? the great man’s bro? didn’t know William had any sibllngs, or that they achieved anything of more note than he did. William? Ah yes, as you said, Guglielmo! Mystery solved.

    It’s not just Milan, of course. Every city has streets named after famous people, the bigger the city, the wider they need to cast their net. So, many small towns won’t have streets dedicated to Washington, Edison, or even Shakespeare, since they run out of roads before they run out of names, but the larger ones will.

    As far as first names for people are concerned, Milan is, for the main, a bit boring, fashion dictates what’s chosen. I currently know three little girls called “Viola”. The Tuscans tend to use more interesting, historic names: Vieri, Nicolò, Gracco, and Jacopo, are just some that I can think of. Rome too, seems to have some special names: Priscilla, Rienzi, Lorenza, and others.

    Oh, and the naming kids for TV soap-operas continues. Michael is popular, for example, but tends to be pronounced “My Cool”. I also know a boy called Devis, a spelling mistake? Davis?

    And me? my Italian mum let herself be persuaded by her brother, who had lived in the USA, to call me Roberta, after a Ginger Rogers movie of the time …

    • Wow! This is fantastic. Thanks! Yes, all the names you mention are used here too…I just couldn’t get around to them all so I’m glad you’ve added on. The comment about My Cool is hysterical. And Devis. Of course. Spelled that way it’s assured that it will be pronounced properly. I love it! Thanks!

      • Oh, and something else. Speaking of Shakespeare, have you heard the renegade theory that most or all of Shakespeare’s plays were actually written by an Italian? It’s a fun notion to entertain even if in the end it’s against my DNA to believe it. I’ll post about it some day. It’s a good one…

  2. Joselin says:

    Ok, Charlotte, I’ll see your challenge. How exactly would Joselin translate to Italian? And while you’re at it, can you help the Americans to get it right??

  3. Joselin, I KNEW you were going to ask that. I’m going to have to do some research, but I don’t really think there is an equivalent. Please hold…

    • I’m working on this but I’m still stumped. There are two names which are NOT translations but which bear a relationship to the sound of your name. Giuseppina (the female form of Joseph) and Gelsomino (the flower, Jasmine)…but your name, according to what I’ve turned up, relates to the old German word for the Gauts or Goths and I can’t find an Italian equivalent… (PAUSE)… Ah! I’ve found it! Here’s the deal: Yes, Joselin is from a Germanic male name meaning Gaut or Goth, which was brought to England by the Normans in the form of Goscelin e Joscelin and which was used commonly up until the 14th century. It was revisited in the 20th century as a woman’s name but ONLY in English. It has been “Italian-ized” as GIOSELINA. Your saint days are the 6th of August and the 10th of June, in memory of Saint Gezelin (Ghislain, Jocelin), a hermit near Cologne, Germany, dates of birth and death unknown.

  4. Janette Gross says:

    So, if Janet is Gianna….is Janette Giannitta?

    • OK. Are you ready? “Giannetta” is the word used in Italian (derived from the English) to refer to the spinning jinny! But it is also included (according to Italian Wikipedia) in the long list of names related to and/or derived from Gianna or Giovanna. Here is the complete list. Starting with Gianna, we go to Ioana, Giovannina, Giovannica, Giannina, Giannita, Giannica. There’s also Giannella, Giannetta, Genova (typically from the Italian Riviera), Giana. Nicknames include Nina, Ninetta, Ninuccia, Ninì, Ninni.

      • Janette Gross says:

        That is funny because I am a weaver- though it would be even better if I also spun the wool for my work!

  5. Anna Harrison says:

    The French also have strict rules about naming their kids or changing names; it’s all very complicated but not nearly as funny as what they do in Italy! What gets me is the pronunciation of American/English names…
    And I’ll never forget when a French guy got furious with me for insisting that “Speedeurmann” was not a French comic strip.

  6. Ha! LOL. That is TOO funny. Speedeurmann! Yes…Peter Parker, excuse me Pierre Parkeur…very French, indeed!

  7. JL Walker says:

    Hi Charlotte, did you know that Charlie Chaplin is also known as “Charlot” in Italy? (I think it was originally the French name for his character.) I bet that’s where the Italian pronunciation of your name comes from.

    I generally have problems with my name living in Milan, since both first and last names start with a letter that’s not actually used in the Italian alphabet! But at least there is a TV show with my last name in the title, making reservations just a wee bit easier.

  8. ceciliag says:

    When i lived in Italy, on the Amalfi coast for a few months, my italian housekeeper who spoke no english(and i spoke italian with a book in one hand and lots of mime!) called me Cecilia with the CH sound. I loved it. It almost gave me permission to be another person. After a while everyone there , even the english and american film crew, started calling me Chicheelia, with the accent on the second e sound. It was so pretty.. morning Carlotta!! c

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