Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Sopranome and the Contranome

A sopranome is a family nickname. In "Pan' e Pomodor, My Passage to Puglia" Ian McEwan  defines the sopranome from an outsiders perspective:
 Sopranome reflect some notoriety, deed, habit, tradition, or misfortune that befell a member of a family. Once applied, they stick and become the currency of recognition. pg.46

In the past where most lived in small tightly knit communities, people were much more familiar with their neighbors than we are today. Although small town people are ridiculed and looked down upon in popular culture, they had more opportunity to observe human behavior. While they may not have had much formal education their social intelligence was, no doubt, at a higher level.

They were also economically interdependent. Many shared labor during harvest time, in the construction of new homes and also in the maintenance of commonly used bridges and roads. People kept a close eye on each other because their survival  could depend on it.

The bestowing of these "supernames" on families also gave play, in the act of naming,  to humor and perhaps even maliciousness. At some point one individual coined the sopranome for a family; but in order for it to "stick" others had to be complicit in it's continued use. This didn't have to be unanimous. In many cases this would have had to imply that others could understand the reason for it's bestowal or delighted in it's use, for good or bad reasons. My guess is that most sopranome were given and then accepted in a good natured, wittily humorous  way. Many of them after all were also only descriptive of occupation, place of origin, or appearance. 

Ian McEwan also relates the origin of a sopranome from his wife's comune of Vico in the Gargano region.

M's great, great grandfather had the sopranome 'duh cazedd- of the little houses-and he earned it when he made his first visit to Vico from campagna (for in those days they lived in cazedd-una casa). According to legend , on arrival he was overcome by the number of houses and as the story goes he couldn't stop saying "Mah quant' cazedd-"Well what a lot of houses." pg.46
He also relates the existence of an old widow who's husband left her the sopranome of cazzo nero . Please refrain from asking the meaning of this one as Mr McEwan did in the interest of propriety. Feel free to look it up for yourself though.

In the small, often isolated towns of southern Italy many would have the same surname. Sopranome took on a life of their own in order to distinguish between different branches of a family sharing the same last name.

I have been informed that in my ancestral comune of Sassano there are four different branches of the family. Over time the exact connection between them has been lost, although at some point they had a common ancestor.

One branch was called the " break doors". The exact dialect word for this is unknown to me. Without knowing which branch my great-grandfather came from I would have to say it is "break door" based on  intimate knowledge of my personal family traits. (Don't even ask about this ; )

The other three branches of the family were known as  Pattanieddo, or little potatoes because of their short height, Ciriello, and Cefalo.

Contranome, on the other hand, are personal nicknames bestowed upon individuals. Given names in southern Italian families were governed by strict protocol. This may seem rigid and unimaginative to  modern folk but it served to maintain harmonious relations between families. The first male child was named after the father's father.The first female child was named after the father's mother. The second male child was named after the mother's father. The second female child was named after the mother's mother.

By adhering  to this tradition great insult, which could often lead to estrangement or disinheritance, was avoided. An interesting personal anecdote illustrates this.

While doing family history research I noticed that the census record for my father's family recorded his name as Dominic, his paternal grandfather's name. However, his birth certificate lists his first name as John, also his maternal grandfather's name

Could this have been the source of a feud that existed between the families? To complicate matters even further, Saint John the Baptist , the patron saint of Sassano, the town they emigrated from, was born on June 24. This is also my father's birthday. As I have been told, this was one of the few exceptions to the naming tradition. Perhaps my father's side didn't accept this, still called him Dominic, and the seeds of discord were sown.

Because many people had the same last names and first names it was only natural that personal nicknames would develop. My father's nickname from his old neighborhood was "jiggers". I was aware of this name but was always embarassed to ask the meaning until recently. 

One day when he was two years of age while out with his father at a gathering where music was being played he broke  into a spontaneous dance or "jig". The crowd broke out into affectionate laughter and the nickname has stuck for eighty odd years now. 

As with many traditions these days, old practices of naming seem dated. They will be scoffed at and dismissed as the product of uneducated, backward, bigoted minds but they had their function and purpose. They showed the playful, humorous, though often risque wit of the common people.

The following is my favorite passage from  the book "Old Calabria" by Norman Douglas. Although Douglas traveled extensively in southern Italy, knew the ancient history of the land, as many others who made the "Grand Tour" he seems to have totally misunderstood the nature of the people. He was also relieved of many of his expensive cigars along the way.

posted by John A Stavola


Pan' e Pomodor, My Passage to Puglia, by Ian McEwan, 2007,

Growing Up Under Fascism In a Little Town In Southern Italy, By Dr. Nicholas La Bianca, Xlibris Corporation, 2009

Old Calabria, by Norman Douglas, 1915, public domain

1 comment:

  1. but this is wonderful stuff! my maternal bisnonni had the surname Sampogna. they were from Guardiareggia in the province of Campobasso in the Molise region. is it possible their cognome was derived from a sopranome? the same with my paternal bisnonni, whose surname was Grosso (which is also mine)?