I am continually amazed at the random and rather unflattering things you can learn just by listening to the locals talk to one another. For example this week I learned that GOBBU is Calabrese dialect for “hunchback” and CAPONA means “big head.”

Nice, huh?

Wanna know the context in which I heard these words?

Peppinu u Gobbu

Massimo u Capona

Oh … and Maria a Lorda.

In the southern Italian world where every first son is named after his father’s father, you tend to have an overwhelming majority of Giuseppes, Salvatores or Giovannis … and all with the same last name. In small villages there was also an abundance of families with the same last name, making it hard for the locals to easily distinguish one person from another. So how did they manage?

Introduce the SOPRANNOME, NOMIGNOLO, or rather the nickname.

Much like my old Kappa Sig buddies at LU, southern Italians bestowed nicknames on each other and in a place where political correctness has seen no light, the soprannomi were often unflattering, distasteful or just plain rude.

The dialect-derived nickname was placed directly after the person’s first name, replacing the family name, such as in the above example of “Peppinu u Gobbu,” or “Peppe the Hunchback.”

The soprannome followed this person throughout his life, with his children often being referred to as “Il figlio di Massimo u Capona,” which translates as “The son of Massimo the Big Head.”

Can you imagine?

Class rank was an important factor in determining soprannomi, with wealthy landowners assuming names such as Padrona or Don. Other times a person’s country or village of origin became the basis for his nickname, as in the case of “Gianluca u Curtalitu,” or “Gianluca the Cortalese.”

In other cases, soprannome-dealing friends would use the person’s habits, morals or job as the descriptive name, when possible tying in more than one of these elements. This was the case for the morzello-making chef with questionable hygiene, “Maria a Lorda,” which translates as “Dirty Maria.”

This was also the case for poor “Rosa a Puttana,” you know … that ever-giving, hard-working and high-ground seeking Rosa. The Hooker.

Talianu u Piscialettu” had bed-wetting issues.

Pasquale u Spinnatu” was bald.

and then there was “Antonio Gamba e Lignu” with the wooden leg.

In large Calabrian cities this is a vanishing trend, leaving most of the new generation soprannome-less. But, what if it found a revival? How do you think this treasured tradition would fly in America? And what do you think your soprannome would be?

Leave your soprannome in the comments and we’ll have a contest! Winner will receive a cool, Calabrese give-a-way compliments of My Bella Vita and Il Cedro Bed and Breakfast.

* Deadline to enter is Tuesday, September 9. Random drawing will be held on Wednesday, September 10, with winner being revealed on Thursday, September 11. Soprannomi can be written in English. Good luck!

26 Responses
  1. Poor Talianu forever known as the one who wet the bed! (And some of the others aren’t that much better.)

    I’d tell you mine, no honest I would, because I rather like it, but it’s also my password. I’ll watch this space to hear some of the others though.

    Do you have one?
    I know, right? Have you ever heard of a worse nickname?? I don’t have one and neither does Pep. At least none that we *know* of. 🙂

  2. I have one! I’m “la zita de figghiu de Mastru Turi.” For readers outside of southern Italy, that’s “the fiancée of the son of Master Salvatore.” P’s father was the only blacksmith in the village many years ago, so he earned the title of “Maestro” as he taught others the craft; he is known as Mastru Turi (Turi is the southern Italian nickname for Salvatore).

    Somehow I escaped the fate of being “L’americana” 😉
    We have a few “maestros” around here, too. What about P? Does he have one?

  3. Great post, nicknames are essential. Mine is Gina short for Regina because I’m bossy, and my partners is Budi short for Budino -pudding.
    I think Gina cause you are a queen .. 🙂 And I’m really wanting to hear the puddin’ story. Hmmm …

  4. Jeff

    I think I’ve told you mine before on my site. Sometimes they call me “Zeeedon” because they say I look a little like the French soccer star Zidane (when he had hair). I thought they were calling me “The Don” like I was the boss.

    Jeff “Zeedon”
    Oooh, that is a good one, Jeff. Jeff Zeedon … I like it!

  5. Forget mine, what is yours?
    No, Running … I seriously don’t have one. Sometimes they call me Cicina, pronounced chee chee na because they Italianized the name my nephew gave me, which is Cici. But, nothing else.

    I think you should invent one!

  6. Well, one of mine is the more obvious- Rockin’ Robin. I have also been Robina, Robinowitz and most embarrassing was my uncle’s who used to call me Robin red-breast (after the bird of course), but only until I hit about 12 years old.

    Mom used to call me her Minnie Mouse- which was cute. Personally I prefer Chatty-Cathy-cause I talk alot 😉

    C. plays music, so my friend calls him Maestro. Fitting.
    LOL. So glad your uncle’s nickname didn’t stay with your through HS and college! he he

  7. ha! These are funny…if Chris found out that Capona meant ‘big head’ then I’m sure that would become my name b/c I’ve always said that my head was large 🙂 But my nick name used to be ‘Skia-Mia’ . Long story really.
    He he skia-mia. Boh!

  8. My grandfather and all his siblings, whose family were from southern Italy, had nicknames. None of which I can recall off the top of my head without the help of relatives (sorry).
    My husband’s father, whose family was from a village not far from where my family’s village was, gave me a nickname. Missalina. Little Missy? Not sure what it would really translate as (hopefully nothing too bad!).
    Fun post. I really enjoyed reading it.
    I hope you can track down those other soprannomi, I’d love to know them! I can’t imagine that missalina is anything unflattering … whew. You got by on that one, huh?

  9. I guess mine would be Motore Lingua or “turbo tongue”- that was mine in high school, and probably would still apply – for talking fast…not anything else you’re thinking 😉
    Ha. Motor Mouth, huh?? I guess you really have to work hard on those voice overs, huh??

  10. My nickame has been ‘Pete’ for as long as I can remember. Nothing usual you say, no maybe not unless your a girl!! I asked my parents where the Pete nickname came from, neither can remember. Oh well, it could be worse.
    he he … Pete? I love it! I especially love that no one knows why!

  11. This is a fun post! Love hearing everyone’s nicknames.

    Around here, one of Angelo’s many nicknames has become, L’uomo Criceto, which means Hamster Man in English. This is a reference to his love of paper products. The man has paper napkins tucked in every pocket, as well as an omnipresent stack next to his desk. He plans to buy a treadmill, too, which I tease him by referring to as his ‘hamster wheel.’

    In keeping with our rodent theme, I’m known as Squirrel Girl, or Scoiattolo, in Italian. This is due to the fact that, like a squirrel, I find clever places to put things, then forget where those places are!

    Later, when I find the lost item, I always blurt, ‘But isn’t that such a clever place to put that?’ to which I get replies such as, ‘Whatever you say, Piccola Scoiat’.’

    He he … squirrel and hamster… how sweet! 🙂

  12. ‘Mastru Peppino mangiatu dei jatti’ (cats) – ok , its not mine. It belonged to a man from my father’s village in calabria – don’t ask me how he got it!
    My grandfather’s was ‘Il Principino’ which used to annoy my grandmother ‘Mariuzza’ who would correct them and say it was’Principe’.
    When I was little my grandfather was call me ‘Rosalbina a vulpe’- sly fox and I got frizzie at school on account of my surname. Mangiato dei gatti is my favourite !
    Oh my. Now THOSE are some soprannomi! He he…

  13. Carole D

    It’s funny how the Calabrese dialect is so similar to Siciliano. My father was known as “u figghiu chiu granni di Pippino Billuni /il figlio maggiore di Peppino Bellone”. It’s hard to write in dialect. Both you and Michelle are awesome.
    Long, long ago when I was born in a village near Palermo, I was named after my maternal grandmother Calogera, but the soprannome Lina was popular then. There were a bunch of Linas and then of course they would say “a figghia di… Then, when I emigrated to the States, I didn’t like either one so when I became a citizen I changed it to Carole.
    My family in Sicilia still calls me Lina. Sorry for going on & on, but…me ziu Rusulinu has 2 grandsons named after him and guess what they call one of them ….”Lino”.
    I hope I didn’t take too much space. This is a funny post Cicina.
    I can’t take all of that credit for writing in dialect. It IS hard. I get P to either help me write or edit!! I think Lina is cute. We have a neighbor called Lina. Why am I not surprised they called the man Lino?? Lol! That is *SO* Italian, isn’t it?? And you could never take too much space, Carol uhm. Lina! 😉

  14. Well, my nickname in the States was “pumpkin,” maybe because of my strawberry blond hair…a high school teacher also called me “big red”.

    My husband, Francesco, has the standard “Ciccio” and “Franci” nicknames, but his uncle also called him “Capparezza” (curly top) which has since been made famous by the singer of the same nickname, who also happens to be from this city.

    Another favorite of mine is Giusy, called “mucchi verdi” or “green snot”…he must have had a really bad cold at some point…and will be remembered for it till the day he dies!
    Pumpkin and Big Red are cute … green snot?!? That is just tragic! lol

  15. a.

    well, im sicilian american, and all my sicilian relatives and friends call me

    ‘pedi pirciatu’ which means ‘pierced foot’ which is a term that basically means im always on the go, have a wanderlust, etc.

    but my nonna calls me pupidda! little doll!
    Pedi Pirciatu is sooo cute. I love it!

  16. Carla

    Well, I’ve been called “orsetta” (bear cub) b/c of my last name and also “paparella” (little duck)apparently I walk like a duck to some :-/
    But in my father’s hometown I’m simply known as “a figghia du Lino” (Lino’s daughter)…nothing too exciting there.
    P.S. to “a”: my mom who is Sicilian also calls my little neice “pupidda”, I just think it’s so cute!
    He he… paparella is funny. But, for what it is worth, I don’t think you walk like a duck.

  17. joanne at frutto della passione

    My nickname has always either been Jo (here it’s Gio) or Christmas … yeah, I know, I know not terribly original but there you have it.
    I love those nicknames. I can “hear” people calling you Christmas. So cute!

  18. Vanessa

    Ha this is a funny post. I’m prob too late to enter your competition but i’m going to post anyway.

    ALL members of my in-laws family go by nicknames but they are the usual ones (toto’, pippo, pippi etc). The worst nickname here I have heard is a woman who goes by (sp?) Pupa, but in english sounds like Pooper. No one even knows her real name….

    I don’t have a nickname here -well, that i know of as everyone always uses my full name.

    However I have made up many a nickname, esp for some of my husband’s colleagues. There is one they call ‘Il Due’ (no.2) which i thought was in reference to the fact he was second in charge. In fact it’s after 2 nov (day of death/ mourning for the dead) because he is v accident prone and full of bad luck. Anyway, I call him George as he is a ringer for George Bush. Best thing is I can talk about him when he’s there and he has no idea this ‘george’ is him.

    Another guy who works for my husband looks EXACTLY like the Karate Kid (Ralph Macchio??) so i call him Karate Kid or KK for short.

    Met someone the other night (actually sat opposite her and talked to her all through dinner) but i didn’t catch her name so have been calling her Lillith as she had an uncanny resemblance (incl mannerisms and dress/ hairstyle) to that character off Frasier.

    Of course all these people are Sicilians and i’m sure most of them have no clue who they’re named after.
    However, if you called one of them VALKER TEXAS RANGER they’d know in a heartbeat! lol

  19. sorry I missed this one! What a great post Cherrye… I was just talking about this with my mother a few weeks ago! her answer was exactly what you said, lots of the same last names and naming your first son after the father’s father. I know plenty of southern Italians with great nicknames that live near my grandparents…. “Giovanni da vigna vecchia”, “Giovanni from the old vineyard” or “Francesco u biondu” “Francesco the blonde”… You’re right Cherrye, dialect is hard to write and read but I’ve seen whole books written in dialect… crazy!
    Giovanni from the old vineyard is cute. I’m glad your mom backed up why I think they use nicknames. What about you, Joe? Do you have one?

  20. Not really… my dad used to call me Peppino il suricello “Peppino the little mouse” when I was a kid though:)
    That is so funny, Joe. I just learned that word in dialect this weekend! LOL

  21. maria

    My first Gran baby girl has been named Bella… My husbands background is Sicilian and his mother was from Naples… when my children were little she gave all of them nicknames. all boys Alfonso, angelo and Andre . i often heard her refer to a little neighborhood girl as something like gia Bella.. yet her name was only Bella.. trnaslate that little extra for me if you can
    Gia means already, so your inlaws were calling her “already beautiful.” Isn’t that sweet??

  22. Justin

    If you grew up without being called bambolotto/a, you’ve missed out on a piece of southern Italian culture. I’m in my 20s now and everyone STILL calls me bambolotto! It’s either that, or Tino il tesoro.

    Lots of people, like my grandpa, had a combination of different nicknames depending on where they were. In Potenza, he was Peppino il forno because his mom was the town baker, and in P. Salerno he was Maestro Pe because he was the only blacksmith in the village.
    I love that he had two nicknames, and it certainly makes sense. I’d never thought of that. And I’m not surprised they call you bambolotto. They call 40 year old men “ragazzi!”

  23. My family came from a small town in the Avellino region. My grandfather’s family’s soprannome (or stuort’nom’) is i popp’ and my grandmother’s family’s stuort’nom’ is u’Mammocc’.

    I don’t have a stuort’nom’ yet. I say “yet” because I’m moving to the town where my family lived this summer… Since I’m deaf and have bright blonde hair, I’m sure I’ll be given a nickname to reflect these characteristics. 🙂
    Congrats on your upcoming move! I’ll check out your blog. Thanks for the comment.
    Gervase’s last blog post..More information

  24. Paola

    When I was growing up in my Italo-American neighborhood, everyone of my dad’s generation had to have a soprannome because there were usually several people with the same first AND last name. It was the only way to tell one from another. The one I will always remember – because it was so fun to say as a kid – was Sicilian dialect so the best I can do is simplify it to be STICHELLA DI LINO (“a stick of linen”). Needless to say, the woman was molta magra.

    Oh wow. That is funny. I wish people called me stichella di lino!

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