“Tutti hanno un nome,” Italians say. (Everyone has a name.) But in Italy many people also have soprannomi (literally "above the name") or nomignoli (nicknames)--a very old tradition.
The Roman Emperor Gaio Giulio Cesare Germanico, for instance, came to be known as Caligula, from the word for the shoes that legionaries used to wear. Nero was called Nerone (Big Nero); Attila the King of the Huns (il re degli Unni), as Flagello di Dio (the scourge of God); Lorenzo de’ Medici,who presided over Florence in its golden age, as Il Magnifico.
Jacopo Comin, son of a dyer, was called Tintoretto, but the blazing energy of his works inspired the nickname Il Furioso. Michelangelo, the master of masters, had two nicknames: La Terribilita for his fierce temperament and Il Divino for his divine talent. Much more recently Frank Sinatra was dubbed La Voce (the Voice); Maria Callas, La Divina (the Divine One), and former Prime Minister Berlusconi, il Cavaliere (the knight).
Some nicknames are abbreviations of longer names, such as Giò (Giorgio) and Giù (Giuseppe). I had always thought that Enzo stood for Vincenzo, Lorenzo, or Fiorenzo. But as I recently learned from a member of the LA BELLA LINGUA Facebook group, Enzo--the exact name his mother chose for him-- can also stand alone. The same is true of "Gino," often assumed to be short for a name like Luigino. Another group member notes that her mother Luigia was dubbed Luigina for another reason: She was the last of nine children.
Other nicknames are based on appearance. An ugly woman may be known as Befana (the Epiphany witch). A short woman (like myself) could become Tappo (cork), Nana (dwarf) or Gnoma (gnome). If she marries, as I did, a tall man (who might be nicknamed Vatusso from the extremely tall Watusi of Africa), they form an “il” (the combination of a little "i" and a tall "l" that translates into “the”).
Some nicknames come from the Bible. An unfortunate soul is a povero Cristo (poor Christ); a traitor, a Giuda (Judas); and a very old person, a Matusalemme (from long-living Methuselah). Geography inspires other epithets. Southern Italians deride Northerners as polentoni (big polenta eaters) because that food once sustained the population. Northerners fire back with terroni (big dirt guys), a reference to the peasants of the South.
“Yanks” used to be the most common nickname for Americans. In recent years it’s been replaced, unfortunately, by the all-too-apt culoni (big butts).
Words and Expressions
essere soprannominato -- to be nicknamed
etichettare qualcuno come… –- to label someone as…
cicerone -- a tour guide, from the Roman writer Cicero
“(name) di nome e di fatto” -- someone who has a name that perfectly reflects a personality trait or physical characteristic. A very fair-skinned woman named Bianca (white), for instance, would be “Bianca di nome e di fatto.”
Dianne Hales is the author of La Bella Lingua: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language. Click here for more information on joining her for a week of writing, cooking, and savoring Italian pleasures in Capri this fall.