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Surnames and Their Origins


By Joe Cannavo

This month’s surname column continues with surnames that start with the letter “C,” but with a slightly different twist. Since October is the month that Italian-Americans celebrate Columbus Day and it is the month officially recognized as Italian Heritage Month, this month’s column features an array of given names and surnames derived from Christopher Columbus, in Italian Cristoforo Columbo.

The English rendition of Colombo, Columbus, is actually as it would have been written in ancient Rome. The word Columbus means dove in Latin.  Because the Latin – us ending becomes –o in Italian, his Italian name becomes Colombo and found on any Italian legal document bearing his name. As a surname, it started as being associated with merchants that raised and sold doves and then passed on as a surname to their descendants. The spread of forms of Colombo as a given name is attributed to the religious association of the dove as the symbol of the “Holy Spirit.” It became a term of endearment and love, similar to the English term “dear” and subsequently people began naming their children Colombina, Columbella.

Getting back to the surname Colombo, over the centuries it and its related surnames have spread throughout Italy, some forms being analogous to a particular region. Here are just a few: Colomba, Columbo, Colombro, Colombani, Colombetti, Colombrino, Colombini, Colombazzi.    

Columbus’ first name Christopher means Christ-bearer. It was used by early Christians as a way of expressing that they carried Christ in their hearts. By the Middle Ages, literal interpretations of the name’s etymology led to legends about a St. Christopher who carried the young Jesus across a river. He had come to be regarded as the patron saint of travelers.

Given that Latin came into usage centuries before Christ birth, the word or name Christopher does not trace roots to Latin. However, once Emperor Constantine issued the “Edict of Milan” in 313 A.D. declaring Christianity legal and official in the Roman Empire, the word Christopher began to see a spread of its Latinized and Italianized versions. Given that Italian would never use a ph combination to get an f sound, and h in Italian in cases is optional, in Italian the word and given name usage, evolved into Cristofaro.

As for its current-day presence in Italy, Colombo is the seventh most common surname in Italy. It is registered with the Bureau of Statistics in all 20 regions. However, it is most common in the Lombardia region, not Christopher Columbus’ native Liguria. Liguria ranks third after second-ranking Piedmont. It is least common in Abruzzo. The six surnames in order that are more common than Colombo are Rossi, Russo, Ferrari, Esposito, Bianchi and Romano.

More “C” surnames next issue!

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