relatives name in his/her original language is very important. Before you start
searching old records, take the time to determine the right name, including its correct
spelling. Below on the left is a table of Sicilian/Italian surnames with
their pronunciation and their meanings or literal translations, followed by
the names they may have been changed to in America. Similarly on the
right is a table arranged by Americanized surnames showing the
Sicilian/Italian names from which they may have been derived.
It's important to realize
that the great majority of Sicilians and southern Italians, due to the
restrictive social systems in those regions, were poor and illiterate.
Names were changed not only after immigration, but in 'the old country'
itself. Names were entered in official records by clerks. Few
records were signed by the actual participants. I have found that the huge
preponderance of the records I have reviewed end with this statement or
something similar: "This record was read to all those assembled, but is
signed only by me [the official], the witnesses and the declarant having
said that they are illiterate." Since they were illiterate, their
names were spelled by the clerk, and a different clerk for a different event
could very well spell the name differently, with no 'correction' possible by
the declarant. For example, 'Di Marco' in one record, and 'Dimarco'
or even 'De Marco' in another. If the spelling of names varied
even in original Sicilian records, it should come as no surprise that
sometimes the names of immigrants who couldn't read or write, and couldn't
speak English, might be changed in their new country.
But contrary to widespread belief,
immigrants' names were not "changed at Ellis Island."
The passenger manifests for the ships on which immigrants arrived were made
out at the point of embarkation, by native language speakers. Their
names on the manifests were as they were recorded in Sicily or Italy, on the
travellers' official visas or passports. There
may have been minor spelling errors, but not wholesale changes, and Ellis
Island immigration officials (and Castle Garden officials before them) used
the names as they were on the manifests. Often, names were
'Anglicized', that is, modified after the immigrant had settled somewhere,
by American clerks, employers or neighbors who could not or would not
properly pronounce or spell the "foreign names". So names were often modified to a more
recognizable (or acceptable) name. Since many immigrants were
illiterate and actually did not know how to spell their own names, they may
have accepted incorrect or completely different versions of their name.
Others may have Anglicized their names to 'fit in' with a mostly Anglo-Saxon
In the pronunciation guide, the emphasized syllable is
shown in CAPITALS. Note that vowels in both the Sicilian
and Italian languages have the following
sounds: A is ah; E is eh (long
a); I is ee; O is oh (long
o), and U is oo (like the "oo" in "foot".. A, E, I, O,
U in Italian is ah, eh, ee, oh, oo!! The English
sound of I (long i as in eye) is given by the combination ai
in Sicilian or Italian. Sicilian/Italian have no letter "k", "y" or "w".
They have a letter written like "j", but this "j" is actually a form of the
letter "i", and is pronounced as we would pronounce "y" in English.
may ask "What is the English translation of the Sicilian surname _______?"
and many surnames were translated
literally. Thus, Curto became Short, and Molinaro
(moh-lih-NAH-roh) became Miller. Some names
were converted phonetically into English spellings. For example,
Castello in Sicilian is pronounced kah-STELL-oh, but Americans
thought it should be spelled Costello. Some changes were
simply modified spellings, for example changing Ganci (GAHN-chee) to
Gangi. Some were one-time errors on censuses or
naturalization records, as in my family's case: Coniglio (coh-NEEL-yoh)
||In Sicily and Italy, there is a phrase for "maiden name", though
it is not often found in older records: it is "cognome da nubile".
In civil records: Atti di Nascita, Pubblicazione, Matrimonio, Morte,
Allegati, Diversi and Cittidinanze, form 1820 through 1910 and
beyond, I have never seen the phrase "cognome da nubile". Both male and female
children received their father's surname at birth, or in the case of
foundlings, were given a concocted surname by the authorities.
However, whether male or female, unless the surname was officially changed
for some reason (not including marriage) it was their surname for
a Sicilian woman's name is her name, period. The surname on her
birth record, her marriage record, the birth records of her
children, her death record, and her headstone are all the same: her
name. If a married woman emigrated, the surname on her passport and
her passenger manifest were the same: her name. If she had her
children with her, their surnames would be listed as their father's
surname, she would have her own surname.
This is a way to determine a woman's surname if you don't know it.
Search passenger manifests for her accompanying children by their
father's surname; hers will appear above theirs. Be forewarned that
sometimes the child's surname is not written in, and indexers
unfamiliar with this tradition index them under their mother's
In Sicily, if for some reason a woman's husband's surname was given,
it would be in this form: 'Rosa
meaning "the woman born Rosa Alessi, who is married to Mr.
Coniglio". In the U. S. we use the French style, 'Rosa
meaning "Rosa Coniglio, who was born Rosa Alessi".
||Many surnames have the prefix "di" or "Di".
Contrary to popular legend, while some "Di" surnames may be
borne by descendants of nobility, the overwhelming occurrence of
such names has nothing to do with noble ancestors.
The Italian word "di" means "of" or "from", as
in "John, son of a person" or "John, from
a place". I'll use Dipietro as an example.
This surname probably started when a man with the given name
Pietro had a son who was called, say, "Giovanni, son of
Pietro". That is, Giovanni di Pietro. That
became Giovanni's surname, and when he had sons, rather than
"di Giovanni", they also took the surname di Pietro
(just as all persons named Peterson are not necessarily the son of a
man named Peter). Other surnames might also be treated
this way. Established surnames might be preceded by "de",
"di", "Di", etc.
Early church records often recorded a person, for example, as "Joannes
de familia Petrus", that is, "Giovanni of the family of Pietro".
This form was generally was shortened to simply "Joannes de
Petrus" that is, they recorded the surname as de Petrus
or di Petrus, which in Italian became di Pietro. Then it
modified to Di Pietro (note the space, there is always a
space between surname elements in Sicilian and Italian records), and then clerks may have
begun to write it simply Dipietro. They are all
essentially the same surname, and there are many cases where two
siblings born years apart to the same parents have had their names
When searching for such names in original indices, note that they
may have been alphabetized under the "D" for "Di Pietro" or
"Dipietro"; or they could be under the "P" for "Pietro,
Early church records may have used the Latin word "de"
(pronounced "day"), which means the same as "di", however "di" is
pronounced "dee". "De" occurs more often in mainland and
northern Italy, while in Sicily in civil records, "di" is most
common. In the U. S. these surnames often morph to
DePietro or Depietro because English speakers think the "dee"
sound should be spelled "de". Another modified usage is to
spell the name DiPietro, but in Italy and Sicily, as
previously noted, there is always a space: Di Pietro.
Some "Di" names are separated in modern records; some like
Difrancesco and Divincenzo are regularly written as a
When the "di/Di" appears before a name beginning with a
vowel, it is contracted to d' or D', as in D'Angelo,
D'Antonio, D'Alba, D'Auria, D'Amico, etc. Note that the prefix does
NOT add a syllable to the names: for example, D'Angelo is NOT
pronounced "dee-AHN-jel-oh", but "DAHN-jel-oh".
||Many surnames have the prefix "lo" or "Lo"; or the
feminine forms "la" or "La" and the plural form "li".
The Italian word "lo/la/li" means "the". An
example is lo Monaco, which means "the Monk". A similar
surname is la Monica, meaning "the Nun".
This is a surname that probably started as simply "Monaco",
an ngiuria or nickname for a "monkish" man, then progressed
to lo Monaco, Lo Monaco and Lomonaco.
Examples of "Lo" names are Lo Tempio (the temple, for
a person living near one), La Fornara (the baker), La
Mendola (the almond), Lo Porto (the gate), Lo Curto
(the short one), Li Calsi (the trousers), Li Sacchi
The articles "di"
and "lo" were often originally used as identifiers and not
necessarily meant to be part of the surname, especially in Latin church
records. A surname written as "di Messina" could mean "of the
family surnamed Messina"; "d'Alessi" meant "of the Alessi family",
etc. Again, sometimes these might retain the prefix, but often they were
dropped, as in Messina and Alessi. Similarly, "lo
Galbo" could mean "the Galbo man", etc. It
should be noted, when searching for persons with such surnames in original
Sicilian records: the original indices may list them by either element.
That is, for example, Di Giugno could be listed under "D", OR
under "G" as "Giugno, di". Similarly, Lo Tempio could
be listed under "L", or under "T", as "Tempio, lo", and
These are not all the possible variations
There are limitless possibilities for the Anglicization of Sicilian/Italian
names, especially since in many cases, the first letter of the 'foreign'
name was simply used as the first letter of a completely different