by Sharon Leggio
Nicknames. They are something that everyone is familiar with in one way or another. However, most people have little, if any, personal experience with nicknames. In Italian-American culture, nicknames play a major role in everyday life. Nicknames are formed with a certain unspoken format, and they have a particular importance. In Italian-American culture nicknames, even though to others they may seem harsh and cruel, are terms of endearment and give a sense of belonging.
“Soprannomi” in Italian means “above the name” (Mazzoni) and refers to dialect nicknames (Addario and Rulli). To the “outside world” Italian-American’s use of nicknames may bring to mind organized crime, due to negative media portrayal, with such names as Al “Scarface” Capone and Tony “The Big Tuna” Accardo (Arduini). From my personal experience, I can say that within the Italian-American culture nicknames have a much sweeter significance.
Since very large, extended Italian families all were apt to dwell in close proximity to one another, nicknames were traditionally used to distinguish one branch of a family from another, and/or one individual from another (Addario and Rulli). Another very good reason for the use of nicknames comes from the “rigor of most Italian naming traditions” (Arduini). The first-born son is to be named after his paternal grandfather, and the second-born son is to be named after his maternal grandfather. Likewise, the first-born daughter is to be named after her paternal grandmother, and the second-born daughter is to be named after her maternal grandmother. The children that follow, “Lord willing”, are to be named after their godparents, not to mention the naming of children after patron saints. It goes without saying that many family members, and community members, end up with the same names. Obviously this leads to tremendous confusion when families and communities are gathered and talking to and about one another, which occurs frequently. Therefore there is actually a desperate need for nicknames.
The most basic form of nickname assignment is the tag of “Big” and “Little” added to the oldest and youngest carriers of a name (Arduini). Although, since most Italian families are so large, this isn’t always sufficient, so nicknames have to rely on other characteristics.
A very convincing example of the role that nicknames play in Italian-American life is portrayed in Pietro di Donato’s novel Christ In Concrete. This novel eloquently presents the many different subjects that nicknames stem from. The very first page of the story, Christ In Concrete, is sprinkled with the nicknames of the paesanos that the father Geremio works with. His work even holds a commonly known and used nickname, “Job.” Some of the men that work with Geremio are, “…Old Nick, the “Lean,” Burly Julio of the walrus mustache, known as the “Snoutnose,” short, cheery-faced Tomas, the scaffoldman, Mike the “Barrel-mouth…”(3-4) Throughout the entire first chapter characters are introduced by their nicknames, and this paints a distinct mental image of the workers for the readers, making them feel closely acquainted with the men, “…Patsy; Curly-headed Lazarene, the roguish, pigeon-toed scaffoldman…” (5) Contrary to popular belief, this is exactly what nicknames do, they bring people closer together, supplying a common ground and creating a deeper intimacy.
Nicknames also play a major role in acceptance, and foster group unity when after Geremio’s death, his young son Paul has to enter the world of “Job.” The workers know him as “Son of Master Geremio” (64). Paul recognizes their faces, but is also familiar with their nicknames, and that is how he becomes acquainted with the men of “Job.” There is “…Mike “Orangepeel-Face;” Salvatore “Four-Eyes,” Nick “the Lucy,” Bastian the tongue-tied Calabrian, Hunt-Hunt, Black Mike, Old Santos, Yellow-Fever Giuseppe…”
In Italian-American culture nicknames are not only important in the work setting, but also extremely significant in the social lives of Italian-Americans. It is not only the men that are tagged with nicknames; the women also carry their own labels, “…the dame Katarina, big-titted Cola, the Regina Govanni, Theresa the Meatball…” (34) Most of the other women in Christ In Concrete, and many women in Italian-American culture, are referred to as “The wife of…” In everyday social interactions, nicknames act as somewhat of a passport for both well-known acquaintances and strangers:
“In fact, if I say to the older people in my town my actual name, they will not know who I am. But if I tell them I am the granddaughter of Ficuccio (which was my grandfather’s nickname) then they say, “Ah, now I know who you are.” And then they call me Ficuccia – the feminine form of Ficuccio – and so I become part of the tradition. Not only that, I become a recognized part of the community, rather than just a stranger from who knows where – which is very strange since my family has been here for who knows how long!” (Mazzoni)
When it comes to how certain nicknames are chosen for people, there are different sources and reasons. The most common categories that nicknames form out of are: a prominent physical feature, a unique behavioral trait, an interesting habit, an occupation, a place of origin, a favorite food, or a past memorable incident that pertains to the person being nicknamed. There are deeper explanations as to why and how people are nicknamed:
“Not all possible words become nicknames, and in order to understand why a nickname will stick to a person we must take into account its crucial functions within a community, from ascribing communal values to an individual’s actions and practices to reinforcing an in-group bond. Social values placed on origin, behavior, or physical characteristics are thus connected to an individual through the nickname. The nickname constitutes a critical and prominent feature in the construction of an individual’s personhood and social identity. It marks the bearer’s membership in a social group and at the same time makes “inside” information accessible to members of that group.” (Jacquemet 736)
There are many examples of nicknames in Italian-American culture that are based on physical characteristics, and they are even broken down further into categories. One category refers to facial features, ‘o Piezzuocchie (the One-eyed), ‘o Nasecano (the Dog Nose), and ‘o Scugnato (the Toothless). Another category pertains to bodily shape, o’ Stuorto (the Crooked), ‘o Nano (the Dwarf), ‘o Palletto (the Little Belly), ‘o Pallone (the Big Belly), and ‘o Grissino (the Breadstick). There is also a category for physical ability, Ercolino means Little Hercules (Jacquemet 737).
Behavioral nicknames and nicknames derived from personality characteristics are also popular, ‘o Saglienne (the Climber), and ‘o Chiacchere (the Chatterbox) (Jacquemet 738). There are usually interesting and amusing stories that go along with these nicknames:
“The grandfather of my best friend was named Luigi, but we always called him Lui de Sgnoccie, which means “Lui the Big Drinker.” He had what is called a drinking problem, although the only person who had a problem with his drinking was his wife. She sent him to sleep in the barn while she slept in the nice house. But even so, he had a great sense of humor which everybody except his wife enjoyed.” (Mazzoni)
This story and category tie in nicely with the category of nicknames that fall under the heading of habits and past events or experiences. ‘O Biberon (the Feeding Bottle) refers to a child that drinks from a baby bottle well into his childhood (Jacquemet 738).
The occupation that a person has is another efficient way to identify them. Some old professions that made good nicknames for the times were, ‘o Suararo (the Corkmaker), ‘o Gravunari (the Coal Miner), and ‘o Cucchieriello (the Coachman) (Jacquemet 738).
The characters in Christ In Concrete beautifully represent all of these unique and intriguing nickname categories. Some of the characters that are merrily called by a nickname that is representative of a physical trait are, as I mentioned before, Julio “Snoutnose,” known for his mustache; Curly-headed Lazarene, known for his abundant curly hair; Mike “Orangepeel-Face,” known for his crater complexion; Salvatore “Four-Eyes,” known for his glasses; Black Mike, known for his extremely dark skin; Old Santos, known for his white hair and elderly appearance, and Yellow-Fever Giuseppe known for the yellow tone of his skin. After Uncle Luigi loses his leg in an accident at work, he is known as “Luigi One Leg,” and it is amusing to most that he is to wed “big-titted Cola,” obviously known for the size of her breasts. (183)
One of the most detailed explanations that di Donato gives in his novel about the reasoning behind a nickname of a character, is that of Nick “the Lucy’s.” It falls under the category of “a person’s favorite thing” and is explained in an entertaining dialogue between Nazone and Paul:
“Sh-sh, behind his back you will hear him named the Lucy, but for God’s love do not ever let slip from your mouth that name!”
“Because his favorite opera is Lucia de Lammermoor, and then he, like a woman, is mobile and goes insane asylum if he hears himself thus referred to.” (78)
There are also a few characters in Christ In Concrete that are nicknamed after their place of origin, Bastian the Calabrian and Alfredo the Neapolitan.
In Italian-American culture nicknames become so common and prominent that the non-use of them becomes a problem, “People identify themselves and each other by their nicknames, not by their legal first or last name. In fact, using the “actual” names can be very confusing to the local people. If you talk about somebody using their real name, nobody knows who you’re talking about!” (Mazzoni) It can go even further than this; sometimes real-names are lost all together, “Not even my mother, who grew up with him, knows his real name” (Mazzoni).
I have run into this issue myself. The use of nicknames runs deep in my family. We affectionately call each other nicknames, and we refer to others by using nicknames that we assign to them. Most people aren’t aware of the nicknames we have for them, and we would be embarrassed if they accidentally found out, and it is all too easy to slip! It is not necessarily that our nicknames are derogatory, but it is more that we feel that most people don’t understand our innocent tradition and they might even think we are crazy. The people outside of our family that know us well, and that we feel comfortable with, are well aware of our nicknaming fetish. We are actually well known for this practice. We nickname our pets and even other people’s pets!
This crazy nickname obsession can’t help but spill over into our “beyond family and friends” worlds. At college all of my friends point out that I have a nickname for everyone and everything. At work my father is famous, and counted on, for his astounding nicknaming skills. Back in his days of bricklaying, he and his co-workers even had a nickname for their fellow worker, the master of incorporating the Italian-American tradition of nicknaming into a novel…yes that’s right…Pietro di Donato himself. They playfully called him “Pervy Peter” because of the notoriously dirty way he talked about women.
It is pretty obvious that in the Italian-American culture, the tradition of nicknaming misses nobody. Even the historically infamous, former Mayor of New York, Fiorello La Guardia had multiple nicknames: The Little Flower, Little Napoleon, The Great Infallible, Midget Mussolini, and last but not least, the nickname that years later has been applied to another former Mayor of New York, Rudolph Giuliani, Il Sacro Terrore (The Holy Terror.) (Tierney) Nicknaming is just another way for Italians and Italian-Americans to show love. And what do they do better? For me it is just another heartwarming answer to why I am they way I am. I am just glad that we could share this warm, unifying custom with the rest of the world.
Addario, Sara and Bonnie Rulli. Italian-American-Webring. 31 May. 1999 28 Feb. 2001 http://geocities.com/Heartland/Trail/3860/Nicknames.html
Arduini, Frank. 5 Aug. 1999 3 Mar. 2001 http://www.arduini.net/names/names14.htm
Di Donato, Pietro. Christ In Concrete. New York: Signet, 1993.
Jacquemet, Marco. “Namechasers.” American Ethnologist. 19.4 (1992): 733-44.
Mazzoni, Claudia. Claudia’s Corner. 14 Feb. 1999 3 Mar. 2001 http://home.earthlink.net/~girowt/site/archive/990207.htm
Tierney, John. “The Holy Terror.” New York Times Magazine. 1995 7 Mar. 2001 http://www.maniform.com/prolix/giue.htm
if you wish to comment on this paper or ask me any questions, please write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
April 29, 2001
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by Sharon Leggio