How Did “Vincenzo” Become “James?”

How Did “Vincenzo” Become “James?”

by John Philip COLLETTA, Ph.D.

The multitude of Italians who ventured to the United States in steamships at the turn of the twentieth century carried more than their trunks and bags and bundles. They carried the culture and traditions of their ancestors. When it came time to name their American-born children, however, the newcomers realized that no ancient custom of Italy could survive the trans-Atlantic displacement unaltered. To keep the old ways, they devised some very creative adaptations.

Their forebears had named the first-born son for the father’s father, first-born daughter for the father’s mother, second son for the mother’s father, and second daughter for the mother’s mother. Observing this practice, generations of young parents had honored their own parents. Immigrants whose father and mother bore names having English equivalents experienced no difficulty: Giovanni became John; Giuseppe became Joseph; Luigi, Louis; Roberto, Robert; Maria, Mary or Marie; Rosalia, Rose or Rosalie; Caterina, Catherine; Grazia, Grace; and so forth. But how could loving sons and daughters honor parents whose names, when translated into English, were not names at all? They came up with “acceptable alternatives.”

If the grandmother was Crocifissa, for instance, whose literal translation is “crucified,” the granddaughter born in the United States might be baptized Christine. If the grandfather was

Rosario (rosary), the grandson might be called Russell. Santo (holy or saint) often became Sam or Samuel. Natale (birth or Christmas) became Nate or Nathan; the feminine form, Natalia, converted more easily to Natalie. Giovanna, the feminine of Giovanni (John), turned into Jane, Joan, Jean or Jennie. Donato (which means “given”) became Donald. Names such as Epifanio for a boy and Epifania for a girl, signifying the holy day of Epiphany, were regretfully abandoned for lack of anything remotely comparable in the English language. Renato, which also has no English equivalent, transmogrified to Ronald!

Thousands of natives of the Mezzogiorno transplanted to America were unschooled. Their lives took shape and meaning from age-old custom transmitted from generation to generation by word-of-mouth and observance. This meant local custom passed on in local dialect. American neighbors saw Italians; Italians saw Calabresi, Siciliani, Abruzzesi, Napoletani, Palermitani…. More than this, Italians distinguished among paesani from particular villages. In Italy, every village had its patron saint, whose name was conferred on scores of newborns. In the United States, many of these saints were unknown, even among Catholics, and their names were not used. Imaginative “translations” varied from one Italian community to the next, depending on the paese of the inhabitants and its saints. Filomena (the obscure Saint Philomena) became Phyllis. At least one Florigio (another little-known saint) used Frank for all purposes, personal and legal, for the rest of his long life in California. Sts. Rocco (Roch) and Onofrio (Humphrey?)—extremely common names in Italy—were traded for more conventional American substitutes.

On the other hand, immigrants determined to follow the old ways sometimes gave their child the grandparent’s original Italian name, regardless of how peculiar it sounded to their English-speaking neighbors. Many a lad baptized Nunzio used throughout his lifetime some other, more American, more comfortable name, perhaps Ned. Likewise, many Emmanuellas went by the shortened Nella. Alternatively, parents sensitive to their new cultural surroundings might resort to giving their children two names, the first one American, the second for the eponymous ancestor.

One practice, though, appears to have been common to all Italian-Americans: calling one another, not by given name, but by nickname. This confused even more the naming of children in the New Country after grandparents in the Old Country. Immigrants unlettered in standard Italian, let alone English, often made no distinction between a formal name and a moniker. Peppina, for instance, is short for Giuseppina, which in turn is a diminutive of Giuseppa, meaning Josephine. So a child named for Peppina might be called Jo or Josie, rather than the more correct Josephine. Similarly, Annicchia is a diminutive of Anna; however, the American namesake might be Anita rather than Ann, since the immigrant parents had never heard the ancestress called anything other than Annicchia. (In this case—by coincidence—Anita is perfect, because it, too, is a diminutive of Ann.) Giovannino, the diminutive of Giovanni (John), translates as Jack or Johnny, just as Antonino (Tony) is short for Antonio (Anthony). However, both Giovannino and Antonino—as well as Renato and others!—may have been known simply as Nino, pronounced “Ninu” in Sicilian dialect. Numerous adaptations evolved. In some places, the stand-in for Crocifissa was Gertrude!

The reverse also occurred: Italian immigrants unable to distinguish American nicknames from names adopted a nickname if it sounded close enough to the Italian original. For instance, Sandy, rather than Samuel, was sometimes used for Santo. Gus, not Augustine, was used for Agosto or Agostino.

Complicating matters further, some Italians were known by a name that had nothing to do with the one they received at birth. One “Uncle Tony,” for example, was baptized Giovanni. But shortly after his baptism, his father Antonio died. The grieving mother, wanting a namesake for her deceased husband, always called her son Antonio rather than Giovanni. And the name stuck in America. “Uncle Tony’s” namesakes were baptized Anthony, not John.

Italian Jews who came to the United States brought various naming practices. Italy’s Jewry combines both Sephardic and Ashkenazic traditions, and by the early twentieth century, both had undergone modification based on Italian language and culture. Professor Sergio Della Pergola of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem posits that Italian Jews named their children differently in four historical periods: first Hebrew names, then Italian versions of Hebrew names,

then patriotic names during the Risorgimento, and today any modern Italian name. Pervasive among the Jews of Italy, however, was the custom of naming grandchildren after grandparents, especially when the latter were still alive—though not in the rigid sequence followed by Catholics. So Jews in America found equivalents to keep the names of their forebears in their families: the Hebrew Shmuel or Shlomo might become Samuel or Solomon, but also Steven or Stephen. Avraham might turn into Alan or Allen as well as Abraham. Reuven might become Ruben, but also Robert.

For all these reasons—and likely others, too—Internet sites that purport to provide the English equivalents of Italian given names are inconsistent, contradictory, and far from comprehensive. The folkloric ways in which the masses of men and women disembarking from the steamships held fast to their Italianità cannot be explained in lists of words in parallel columns. Italian-American families delight in repeating the curious, passed-along accounts of how aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, cousins, got their names. When naming their sons and daughters, newcomers from Italy did not forget their elders “nella Patria.”

Today descendants of the Italian immigrants, Catholic and Jewish alike, appear to have abandoned the old ways. They name their children anything they choose. Why Vincenzo, which translates as Vincent, became James, is an oddity of wonder and speculation. The usage was widespread. Yet no one today can say how Vincenzo became James!