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Surnames and Their Origins – July 2021


This month we are deviating from our traditional surname format to answer two questions that have been posed to us by some of our readers. The first and most often asked is whether Italian surnames are regional. The answer is not cut-and-dried for all regions and all names. Let’s examine the surname Rossi. It is one of the most common in Italy. However while it is most frequently found in Lombardia and Emilia-Romagna, it is common throughout the country. Therefore, don’t assume that when you meet someone whose surname is Rossi that you’ll really know where they’re from.

Let’s look at another Italian surname, Moser. It possibly derives from the name of the Franco-Belgian and German regions bathed by the Meuse and Moselle rivers linked in turn to the German moos, which means “marsh, swamp,” or from the toponymal Moso in Val Passiria in the province of Bolzano. Its origin is probably to be connected to the marshy territory that was once south of Miola, a hamlet of Baselga di Piné. From the Pinè area, in particular from Faida and Miola, the surname spread widely throughout Trentino. The surname Moser is specific to Trentino-Alto Adige. Therefore, if you ever meet someone called Moser, he or she is likely to be from that area.

Other names that are very regional are Brambilla, Mannino, or Morselli, with the latter being very common also in the province of Mantova, which is part of Lombardy but where the dialect and the overall culture is closer to the one in Emilia.

So, there are some national names, some that are very regional, but even with the very regional names there are people who have that name in different regions. While a Mannino is likely of Sicilian origin, he or she can easily be from Liguria, with just grandparents from Messina and having relatives residing in Piemonte.

As in many other places around the world, Italy is also packed with occupational surnames which refer to an occupation, a craft, or a job:

Ferrari (“blacksmiths”)
Sartori (“tailors”)
Galli (“roosters”)
Fattori (“farmers”) Interestingly, another common trait shared by many other Italian surnames is the abundance of color-related etymologies: Bianchi (“whites”), Rossi, (“reds”), Verdi, (“greens”), Neri (“blacks”), Viola (“violet”), Rosa (“pink”) and so forth.

Now, going back for a moment to the surname Moser, we address the next question about Italian surnames that don’t end in a vowel. It is a typical misconception that Italian words always end in vowels. As we can learn from the surname Moser, nothing can be further from the truth!

Quite a number of Italian words don’t end in vowels. Certainly, they are fewer compared to their sister romance languages, but they exist. This rule applies to Italian surnames as well. Most that do, such as Moser, have origins outside of modern-day Italy and often reflect remnants of surnames connected to colonization and foreign occupations.

Vasquez or Lopes are common in parts of Sicily. DeAngelis is common throughout Italy and retains strong Latin roots. Italian surnames ending in -ich would pinpoint those surnames to be from in and around Trieste.

In conclusion, one can also easily see that many Italian surnames do not end in vowels. As indicated above, they are frequently found in peripheral regions like Trentino-Alto Adige, Veneto, Friuli Venezia Giulia, Sardinia, and Aosta Valley. The reason for this is simple: They are either direct Latin reminiscences or places that have had many influences, language-wise, which in turn ended up shaping their history, traditions, languages, and surnames.

You can research your surname on these two websites:

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