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19 February 2001

The strange geography of names

Why does Italy have so many surnames and Wales so few?

By Brenda Maddox

As Radio 3’s Verdi orgy rolled on the other week, the name of the composer’s mistress caught my ear: Giuseppina Strepponi. Strepponi? Where do they get these surnames? Italians, I mean. There seem to be no two alike.

I remember this from the melting pot of my small Massachusetts home town, where a last name was sufficient to reveal religion and neighbourhood. The Yankees lived downtown near the common and the white-spired Protestant churches. The Irish clustered a mile out of town around the Catholic church. Southern Europeans lived down by the river, near the foundry and factories by the railway tracks: the Portuguese around Holy Ghost Hall and the Italians crammed in a district called, with an irony we did not appreciate, “Wall Street”. Myself, I was a Murphy who lived, after my Irish Canadian father’s death, with my Italian-born grandfather’s family.

Most of the ethnic groups bore standard-issue names: Smith, Hunt and Clark; O’Leary, Lynch and Flynn; Boulanger, Boucher and Bois. But the Italians had patronymics that I have not encountered anywhere else: Chiappini, Zanelatto, Draghetti, Ramponi, not to forget my mother’s maiden name, Giamperoli, of which, I had not found another example anywhere outside the immediate family until the other day, when I discovered one in the Bologna telephone directory.

Moving into the wider world, I have observed that, in many cultures, the problem is too few surnames, rather than too many. In Scandinavia, they are in such short supply that the middle name is essential to distinguish the individual from the mass, as England’s new football coach, the Swede Sven Goran Eriksson, is at pains to point out. The paucity of Welsh surnames is well known, as is the wordplay it invites. Tacked on to the name is the ad- dress (“Mrs Jones Bridge”) or the job (“Jones the Post”) or a cute rhyme (such as “Bill the Mill” or, for a friend of one of my in-laws, “Betty from Sketty”). The recent funeral in mid-Wales of an aged and respected farmer named Davies drew several hundred Davieses, who had to invent ingenious name combinations to identify themselves among all the senders of floral tributes.

So how to explain the Italian profusion? I dropped this just-fancy-that question in Genoa, where I was, in a spousal capacity, at a conference of the European Society of Human Genetics. The reaction was as if I had arrived in the Sahara and asked if anyone else had noticed the sand. Politely, I was informed that the particularity of Italian surnames was so widely recognised as to form the focus of a whole branch of genetics, with Italian universities at the forefront. The doyen of the field, once from Genoa, now at Stanford, bears the glorious name of Luca Cavalli-Sforza, and has co-authored a fat textbook called The History and Geography of Human Genes.

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History and geography explain why Italy so differs from the rest. Ancient Italy was densely populated, with about 6.7 million people, yet it was hardly homogeneous, colonised by invaders and settlers from such diverse places as Bavaria, Provence, Albania and Greece, to name but a few. Its long, narrow shape, criss-crossed with formidable geographical barriers, led to a huge variety of isolated dialects and customs. These divisions encouraged endogamy – marrying within one’s own group.

What has caught the eye of geneticists is the correlation between Italian surnames and gene groups. Many of the names are so concentrated in a small locality as to serve as markers of particular genes. Genes (those that travel on the Y chromosome, that is) evolve as surnames do, through the male line. From this, it follows that surnames can be used to trace both patterns of migration and genetic flow. When a barrier between groups suddenly seems to dissolve, an economic reason can usually be found, such as the development of Milan as a centre of commerce and industry. Researchers have learnt that telephone directories and diocesan records are a cheap source of genetic statistical data.

So why not try it? A quick trip to the Kensington Central Library, with its impressive collection of international telephone directories, yielded matches for the apparently idiosyncratic names of my childhood. Clearly, the genes that found their way to that Massachusetts factory town came from pockets of northern and central Italy. Leaving for a new country, those immigrants sought, as immigrants will, relatives who could help them find work and who had the same customs, such as being more familiar with polenta than with pizza.

The gene pool is pretty diluted in my native heath now. Endogamy is out; exogamy is in. The Mazzolenis have married Kilbridges; the Tassinaris have married Joyces. Yet the Italian surnames survive. What’s more, with so many new genetic ingredients from South America and Asia, the names seem part of the old fabric.

Still, what plays well in Las Vegas, at the Yankee Stadium, the Metropolitan Opera and on network television does not do so well at the ballot box. True, the Italian surname can be a vote-winner – Giuliani, Cuomo – but only in certain states. When New York’s Geraldine Ferraro was temporarily the Democratic vice-presidential candidate, a Washington observer told me: “America is not ready for a president with a last name ending in a vowel.”

Dare one generalise? In seeking national office in an English-speaking country, a vowel-ending name is no asset.

Right, Michael Portillo?