Saturday, January 16, 2016


One thing about Italian/Americans was that they treasured their names, throughout the generations. Like all nationalities, it was tradition and respect. You were named after an uncle or aunt, grandparent or great grandparent. Your first name had meaning behind it, as did your middle name that was a compromise and prevented your parents from fighting.

Now in such families were the first names themselves, and like the last name would identify you as Italian/American, or as Mom used to say: “of Italian extraction.” Such monikers as: Joseph, Anthony, Dominic, Rose, Rosemary and Philomena were dead giveaways. Who wasn’t named after their dead relatives? If you weren’t, you were named after a goldfish or trained monkey from way back, or so it seemed. There were other names like Victor, Vicenza etc., but you get the drift. My favorite was Italia; a cousin on my dad’s side was named Italia. She was slightly bigger than her name sake!

Somewhere between the small towns and villages of Italy and the portals of immigration in New York, Philadelphia and maybe Boston, a naming convention must have been held, in which it was decided that if you are Italian, you also needed a descriptive name that said something about your physical appearance. For instance…

Dad had a very close friend: his name was ‘Joe the Finn’! Joe the Finn was not Italian, thus the name. Joe the Finn was of Finnish extraction (Thank you Mom for this use) and he was mysterious, inventive and a cross between Kramer on Seinfeld and Norton from the Honeymooners! What a character, once using copper pennies to get back on line when Con Ed cut off his electricity. You could find him under a car in the street fixing it, where he would save you the cost of a mechanic! Everyone loved him in those days of low pay and hardships. He was Family.

I had an aunt who had part of her index finger missing. Aunt Mary (What else could we name her?) was born on “The other side”, you know, Italy, not across the pond, not Italy but ‘the other side’. She was raised by Grandma and spoke broken English very well. Broken English is best spoken with your hands, as it blends Italian/English into a coherence not immediate at first, but as you pick up the rhythm and cadence, can start to mimic it in front of them and have your face slapped by your embarrassed parent.

Anyway, Aunt Mary would talk with her hands, and one day after having been exposed to a fractions class, I decided to dub her Nine point five (9.5). That was not disrespectful, but just good math! This of course would later come to bite me in the ass as I married a wonderful gal with nine and a half fingers! (9.5), there is that fraction again! This name caught on in the immediate family and so she was always remembered as ‘9.5’.

The strangest naming came from my grandmother, who when she spoke to me in her broken English, (it really wasn’t broken, just unattached so to speak). She would call me “Grandma”! Yes, I know but that was the way it was. First of all I had no bosoms at 5 years of age, secondly I didn’t have any rings, let alone one for each finger, and I never looked at her toes and thirdly, I didn’t own rosaries or prayer books written in Italian!

“Grandma, eat!” “Grandma, tie my shoes” And so I pretended to be Grandma and did those things.

If you last name was say Pantelone, we called you “Jimmy Pants”. This one I am particularly proud of because it came from my son, so the culture to some extent still lives.

If your features were pointed, you could be called ‘Rat’ or if your name was ‘Charles’ you might be called ‘Chuckles’, it all depended on convention and the willingness to accept the name for a good plate of pasta in the end.


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