What’s in a Name?

Posted on 11. Sep, 2014 by in Culture, History

I’ve always been fascinated by etymology, and in particular the origin of names. As a child, growing up in Suffolk, England, the surnames that I heard most often included Smith, Cooper, Baker, Farmer, Cook, and Butcher, all of which can be traced back to the trades that give origin to the name. Click on any of the names above to discover their origins.

My name, Chamberlain, was fairly unusual in Suffolk and, perhaps because it was linked to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (a second cousin of my father), was considered somewhat ‘posh’. Maybe it’s because I had a surname that stood out from the crowd that I felt compelled to discover its origins.

Weird and Wonderful Italian Surnames

All of us who develop a passion for Italy and the Italian language tend to be somewhat mesmerised by Italian names. After all, how can humble Jane Smith compete with exotic Giovanna Fabbro, or Bob Miller with Roberto Farina! In actual fact, Fabbro is Italian for blacksmith, and Farina (literally: flour) indicates that the holder of this surname comes from a family of millers.

Monumento to Ilaria del Carretto by Jacopo della Quercia (CC)

However, Italian names deriving from trades seem to be far less common than their English counterparts. Students of Italian usually reach a stage where they want to translate everything they encounter, and for me that included cognomi (surnames). When I first began to do this I got as big surprise. Names that I had considered to be poetic and romantic turned out to be …. well, bizarre or (not wishing to offend anyone) funny. So, here is a small collection of some of my favourites with their literal English translations:

Battilocchi = Blink the Eyes
Biscioni = Big grass Snakes
Calcaterra = Press down the Ground
Cantalamessa = Sing the Mass
Carnesecca = Dry Meat
Castracani = Dog Castrator
Carofiglio = Dear Son
Cozzalupi = Batting Wolves
Del Carretto = Of the Cart
Del Chiappa = Of the Buttock
Del Gatto = Of the Cat
Della Quercia = Of the Oak
Gambarara = Rare Leg
Lumachelli = Little Slugs
Magnavacca = Big Cow
Malaspina = Bad Thorn
Malatesta = Bad Head
Occhipinti = Painted Eyes
Parlapiano = Speak Slowly
Passalacqua = Pass the Water
Pomodoro = Tomato
Ranocchia = Little Frog
Zerbini = Doormats

Paolo Malatesta e Francesca da Rimini by William Dyce 1845 (Public Domain)

Historical notes by Serena:
Castruccio Castracani, 1281 – 1328, was a famous warlord of Lucca
Ilaria del Carretto, 1379 – 1405, was married to Paolo Guinigi, lord of Lucca
Jacopo della Quercia, 1374 – 1438, sculpted the beautiful funerary monument for Ilaria del Carretto that can be found in
il duomo di Lucca
was a powerful feudal family in Tuscany and Liguria during the Middle Ages. It was divided into two main branches: Spino Secco = Dry Thorn, and Spino Fiorito = Flowering Thorn
Paolo Malatesta was the brother in law and lover of Francesca da Rimini. Their tragic love was immortalized by Dante Alighieri in the Fifth Canto of his Inferno


The Italian equivalent of my surname, Chamberlain, is Camerlengo. Do any of you have a surname that you’d like to share with us, whether it be of Italian origin or otherwise? Or perhaps you’ve encountered a particularly unusual Italian surname. Please leave a comment.

Pier Paolo Pasolini

Posted on 10. Sep, 2014 by in Culture, Italian Language, Literature, News

Last week, at the 72nd edition of the Venice Film Festival, the American director Abel Ferrara (of Italian origin) presented his latest film: Pasolini. Interpreted by Willem Dafoe, the film portrays the final hours and tragic death in 1975 of the Italian film director, writer, poet and Marxist intellectual Pier Paolo Pasolini, whom Abel Ferrara considers an inspiration for his own work. I haven’t seen the movie because it won’t be released in Italy until the 24th of September, but if you’re interested you can find out more about it in this article by The Guardian: Abel Ferrara on the death of Pasolini.

Pasolini davanti al Cristo di Masaccio Photo (CC)

Pasolini was born in Bologna in 1922, but during his child-hood he spent long periods with his maternal grandparents in the village of Casarsa, in Friuli Venezia Giulia, in the north east of Italy. Here he learnt the local dialect, il friulano. His first book of poems was in fact written in friulano, and was published during the Fascist era by the publisher Landi in 1942, who gave a copy to Gianfranco Contini, professor of philology. Greatly impressed by Pasolini’s poems, Contini wrote a review for the magazine ‘Primato’, but the article was never published due to the fact that the Fascists did not allow the use of what they considered ‘barbarian languages’ or dialects. Furthermore, in some of his poems Pasolini’s homosexuality is evident, something which at the time was considered completely taboo. You can read more about Pasolini’s life in this link

Willem Dafoe bears a remarkable resemblance to Pasolini. Photo: (CC) by Siebbi

Here is an example of one of Pasolini’s poems, originally written in friulano, and translated into Italian by Pasolini himself :

Mi contenti

Ta la sera ruda di Sàbida
mi contenti di jodi la int
fór di ciasa ch’a rit ta l’aria.
Encia me cór al è di aria
e tai me vuj a rit la int
e tai me ris a è lus di Sàbida.
Zòvin, i mi contenti dal Sàbida,
puòr, i mi contenti da la int,
vif, i mi contenti da l’aria.
I soj usàt al mal dal Sàbida

and here’s Pasolini’s Italian translation:

Mi accontento

Nella nuda sera del sabato
mi accontento di guardare la gente
che ride fuori di casa nell’aria.
Anche il mio cuore è di aria
e nei miei occhi ride la gente
e nei miei ricci è la luce del sabato.
Giovane, mi accontento del sabato,
povero, mi accontento della gente,
vivo, mi accontento dell’aria.
Sono abituato al male del sabato

finally, my modest English translation:

I’m content

In the naked evening of Saturday
I’m content to watch the people
who laugh in the air outside their houses.
My heart is also made of air
and in my eyes people laugh
and in my curls is Saturday’s light.
Young, I’m content with Saturday,
poor, I’m content with the people,
alive, I’m content with the air.
I’m used to the pain of Saturday.

I Would Have Liked …

Posted on 05. Sep, 2014 by in Grammar, Italian Language

A while ago I wrote an article entitled I Would Like in which I discussed how to use the conditional of the verb piacere (to please). If you feel you need to revise the use of piacere, I suggest that you read this blog.

Now, if you feel fairly comfortable using ‘I like’ and ‘I would like’, let’s move on to today’s slightly more abstract subject: ‘I would have liked’. This construction consists of the present conditional of essere, i.e. sarebbe (third person singular) or sarebbero (third person plural) plus the past participle of the verb piacere with the appropriate masculine/feminine, singular/plural ending: i.e. piaciuto/a/i/e. We’re going to explore this construction through some practical examples. But first let me tell you how I learnt to use it.

head scratch 1
“Now … how on earth do I say ‘I would have liked’ in Italian?”  Photo: (CC) Steven Straiton

Serena and I were at an exhibition of work by Marc Chagall in Pisa many years ago. I remember that it was one of a series of touring exhibitions of so called ‘work’ by famous artists designed to attract tourists that turned out to be a bit of a con, as all of the ‘works of art’ were actually just prints. Feeling ripped off, I puzzled over how to say to the curator “I would have liked to have seen some real paintings!” in Italian, but after 10 minutes of brain frazzling I just couldn’t come up with a plausible construction. So I gave up and asked Serena “How on earth do I say ‘I would have liked’ in Italian?” The answer seemed somewhat bizarre to me at the time: mi sarebbe piaciuto = to me it would be pleased … what the devil! Yes, strange but true! In fact so strange did it seem to my poor English brain that it stuck there due to its outlandish novelty.

And now for some more examples:

“allora … mi sarebbero piaciute delle banane!” (so … I would have liked some bananas!) Photo: (CC) by Philip Kromer

1. Una visita a Modena mancata = A missed visit to Modena
Ieri mi sarebbe piaciuto andare a Modena, ma non c’era tempo = I would have liked to have gone to Modena yesterday, but there wasn’t time
Cosa ti sarebbe piaciuto fare a Modena? = what would you have liked to have done in Modena? 
Mi sarebbero piaciute due cose: visitare una distilleria di Aceto Balsamico e poi vedere il museo Ferrari = I would have liked to have done two things: visit a balsamic vinegar distillery and then see the Ferrari museum
Invece a Francesca cosa sarebbe piaciuto fare? = what would Francesca have liked to have done on the other hand?
Mi ha detto che le sarebbe piaciuto andare a trovare una vecchia amica che abita lì = she told me that she would have liked to have gone to visit an old friend who lives there
Peccato che non c’era tempo … magari la prossima volta = what a shame there wasn’t time … perhaps the next time

2. Al ristorante (non molto ben fornito) = At the (not very well stocked) restaurant 
Allora, cosa ti va? So, what do you fancy? 
A me sarebbero piaciute le lasagne, ma dicono che oggi non ci sono, quindi prendo gli spaghetti = I would have liked the Lasagne, but they say that there isn’t any today, so I’ll have the Spaghetti 
A me invece sarebbero piaciuti i tortellini ai funghi, ma anche quelli non ci sono oggi … quindi, dai, anch’io prendo gli spaghetti = I, on the other hand, would have liked the tortellini with mushrooms, but there aren’t any of those today either … so, okay, I’ll have the spaghetti as well

gorilla 2
“Cosa, non avete neanche le banane! Ma che ristorante di M**DA!” (What, you haven’t even got any bananas! What a SH**TY restaurant!) Photo (CC) by Tambako The Jaguar

3. All’hotel low cost in Marocco = At the low cost hotel in Morocco
Cavolo, mi sarebbe piaciuto farmi una bella doccia, ma non funziona, esce solo la sabbia! = damn, I would have liked to have had a nice shower, but it doesn’t work, nothing comes out but sand!  
A me invece sarebbe piaciuto fare un bagno in piscina, ma anche la piscina è piena di sabbia! = I, on the other hand, would have liked to have had a nice dip in the pool, but the pool is full of sand as well!
Allora cosa vuoi fare? = So, what do you want to do?
Insomma … mi piacerebbe picchiare quel deficiente del tour operator! = Well, I’d like to beat that moronic tour operator! (N.B. this sentence uses the normal conditional of piacere, see this blog)