Though the majority of the island's nearly five million inhabitants live in the major cities of Palermo, Catania, and Messina, the rest reside in hundreds of small villages in the mountains and along the coastal perimeter. These small towners regard city Sicilians with the same wary eye as they do the Italians up north, whom they consider as foreign as any European or American. These villagers still somehow manage to conduct their day-to-day provincial lives some years behind on the time line. The rest of the world is moving too fast for them. The same customs practiced centuries ago are still practiced today, including how the villagers name their newborn.
The first son is named after the baby's paternal grandfather, the second son after the maternal grandfather. The same is true of the first and second daughters: the first is named after the paternal grandmother, the second after the maternal grandmother. All children born after the fourth child are usually named after paternal and maternal uncles and aunts. Add to this the fact that surnames are common in these villages where families are related to one another and usually do not move away. Obviously this doesn't allow for much name variety. Needless to say, the situation can be confusing.
Walking down the streets of Acquaviva Platani, one can hear a mother, a wife, a sister, a friend all calling "Sarbaturi! Sarbaturi!" and each of them calling a different Sarbaturi. It's not unusual that in one family there could easily be ten Caliddu Frangiamores.
I remember when I was a boy, my parents would write letters to Grandpa Salvatore Amico and under his name on the envelope they'd write "Fu Francesco," "son of the deceased Francesco Amico," my great-grandfather, so the letter would not be delivered to my first cousin Salvatore Amico who lived in the same house. Under Cousin Salvatore's name they'd write "Di Francesco," "son of the living Francesco Amico, who was my mother's brother, my Uncle Francesco. Addressing the envelope this way also prevented a letter meant for Grandpa to be opened by Salvatore Amico fu Antonio or di Paolo, a Salvatore Amico from a different family altogether!
So it makes good sense to attach nicknames to keep the people and the families straight. For example, my mother's first cousin Maria Orlando Siracusa was called Maria "the Knife." Don't ask me how that name came to be. Everyone called her Maria Cuteddu so as not to confuse her with another Maria Orlando in town who also had a mother named Giuseppina but was of another Orlando family. No doubt Cuteddu was the nickname of Fullippu Siracusa, Maria's husband. This would explain why Maria's brother Giuseppi was not called Peppi Cuteddu, but instead Peppi Gaddu-- Peppi "the Rooster." Why "rooster"? Who knows! The meaning behind a nickname disappears with time, while the nickname endures from generation to generation.
It was always fun to hear my parents reminisce about paisani back in Acquaviva. Everybody had a nickname! There was So-and-So "the Sacristan," who was never a sacristan. He and his family lived near "la straduna" [the little street]. "The Sacristan" was the brother of This-One or That-One, who married Mama's first cousin after her first husband, a second cousin of Papa's, passed away. And then Papa would say, "Do you remember when Munichiddu [who was really Monichello, not "little Monichello'] got kicked by his donkey?" Mama would laugh and say, "No, that was Scibetta, the one who was married to the daughter of Sebastianu Vario!" Papa would say, "Not Munichiddu? You're right! It was Scibetta!" because Mama always remembered them all so well, having lived there longer than my father had. And when Aunt Laura was with them, then it was a three-way reminiscing with Aunt Laura remembering more than both of them! If either of my parents had a question about someone from Acquaviva, they had only to ask Aunt Laura.
I recall asking my mother once what Grandpa Salvatore Amico's nickname was. My mother smiled. "He didn't have one. The name Amico means 'friend.' That's what he was to everybody!" As a young girl my mother wanted to try out for a part in a professional theater group that had come to town, but Grandpa forbade her. They would give her a nickname-- a stage name-- and who would remember Giuseppina Amico?
Years later when I first visited Acquaviva in 1965, even I got a nickname: "Lu Spertu," "The clever one." When the people in Acquaviva tried to make a fool of me, since I didn't know the language that well, I would write their words down, check them later in my huge English-Italian dictionary, and come back the next day with an appropriate response!
I felt proud of my new name.
“Whatever Happened to Maria “the Knife” first appeared in Salvatore Buttaci’s book A Family of Sicilians: Stories and Poems. Published in 1998, the book is still selling copies because it tells what Sicilians and Sicilian Americans are really about. Copies can be ordered at http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/ButtaciPublishing2008
The Secretary-Treasurer of the largest Italian American newspaper America Oggi, Dr.Antonio Ciaooina wrote, “You really have the soul of Sicily in the book. I’ve never read anything so forceful About Sicily.”
Sal Buttaci is also the author of two flash collections Flashing My Shorts and 200 Shorts, both published by All Things That Matter Press, and available at Amazon.com.