Saturday, September 10, 2022

The Strange Case of the "Red" Italian Surnames

If you’re interested in red hair, you probably already know about this “strange case”. Before we get into the heart of the matter, however, let us briefly review the history of the surname.

The historical sources tell us that in ancient Rome (and even earlier in Greece) it was customary to bear three names: the praenomen, i.e. the proper name, the one with which 'one is called by one's own name', the nomen, which indicated the gens, i.e. the family, the clan to which one belonged, and finally the cognomen. This third appellation was more of a nickname of a practical nature, which served to distinguish possible homonyms, and was chosen without fixed criteria: it could recall the praenomen of the father or indicate the place of origin; or else it referred to particular physical characteristics, including defects, without sparing cruel jibes. To give a couple of examples, Marcus Tullius Cicero was called this because he had a cicero, a chickpea, or wart on his nose, while Publius Ovid was given an eloquent Naso, a big nose (which he preferred never to use, to the point of being handed down and known by the nomen of his gens). For Titus Maccius Plautus, on the other hand, we are spoilt for choice: his surname, which has uncertain origins, could mean 'flat feet' but also 'long ears'. 

Bust of Cicero. No trace of the wart, though



Around the fifth century, the distinction between nomen and cognomen became increasingly blurred, and the so-called supernomen or signum became part of common usage: a single, unheralded name with a clear, immediately comprehensible meaning, such as the imperial name Augustus ('consecrated by augurs', 'favoured by good auspices').

The advent of Christianity and the barbarian invasions contributed to the spread of new names in addition to the pagan ones: the choice became quite wide and there were no major problems in distinguishing individuals. However, between the 10th and 11th centuries, due to population growth, it became increasingly difficult to distinguish one individual from another: the possibility of forming combinations began to run out and it became necessary once again to distinguish between individuals with the same personal name and to identify all those belonging to the same lineage. Thus the modern surname was born, which could originate from the paternal or maternal name, a nickname, the country or locality of origin, trade or profession.

In Italy, the use of surnames was at first an exclusivity of wealthy families, but in 1200 in Venice and in the following century in other areas, albeit with some resistance and delay, the use extended to the less wealthy strata of the population.

The Council of Trent in 1564 sanctioned the obligation for parish priests to keep an orderly register of baptisms with first name and surname, to avoid marriages between blood relatives. The nickname, or middle name, became hereditary.


It seems that today among Italian surnames only 15% are related to physical characteristics: around 35% derive from the father's or progenitor's proper names, while another 35% are related to toponymy, the names of countries or localities or areas of origin; 10% are related to profession, trade, office or title, 3% are of recent foreign derivation and the remaining 2% are augural names given to foundlings by Christian charity.

Italian surnames are more numerous than surnames originated in other European countries (in Italy there are around 350,000 surnames). The reasons are found in society’s history, traditions, and the Italian language and dialects.




This onomastic richness is attributed to:

-    The delay in the process of standardization of surnames, due to the late and slow diffusion of the Italian national language: n Italy, there was not na established national language until the last decades of the 19th century, contrary to what happened with the French or German language.

 -   The standardization of local forms of surnames that appeared due to the linguistic fragmentation (dialects).

-    The Italian practice of shortening names by dropping off syllables. This was also typical during the medieval ages, giving origin to surnames such as Ducci, Lotti, Neri, Ventura, Giunti, Corsi, Salvi, which are a lot more common than those that derive from names like Bernardo (or other names ending in -do), Angelotto, Raineri, Bonaventura, Bonagiunta, Bonaccorso, Diotisalvi, etc.

 -   The medieval tradition to differentiate members of the same family with suffixes. The wide variety of suffixes in the italian language and dialects allowed the creation of a number of variants with the suffixes:– ino, -etto, -ello, -one, -uccio, -ozzo, etc.

  -  In turn, abbreviations were often enlarged with one or more suffixes, becaming longer and unrecognisable. Only a studious of surnames could consider that Guzzinati could derive from Ugo, Federigo or Arrigo; that Pucciarelli derives from Filippo or Jacopo; that Giottini derives from Ambrogio, and that Bossettini derives from Jacobo.

For all these reasons, from Giovanni / Gianni, the medieval name par excellence and the most extended in Italy as well as in Europe, derive thousands of different surnames; from Giovannetti to Zanella, from Di Giovanni to Vannucci, from Iannone to Zandegiacomo, from Nanni to De Zan, from Bongiovanni to Giangrande, and so on and so forth. 


 So, which is the most common surname in Italy? It is Rossi, with more than 45,000 families bearing this surname (families, not individuals). The word "rossi" is the plural of rosso, red. And the second most common? It is Russo (with slightly more than 40,000 families), which, in this case, doesn’t mean Russian (as in modern Italian), but “rosso” in the dialects of southern Italy. 

The surname Rossi in Italy

The surname Russo in Italy



There are many hypotheses about the origin of these surnames. The main one claims that it is a reference to red hair.

Among Romans, this trait had originated the Latin cognomen Rossius, derived from the Latin rubius (red), and in some cases it can be concluded that the surname Rossi derives directly or through hypocoristic forms (or even dialectal) from this cognomen.

Other hypothesis of the origins of the surnames Rossi/Russo in Italy:

-    In some cases, rather than the parent’s physical characteristics, the surname could have been related to a piece of clothing or object of a particularly evident or representative red colour, for example uniforms, shields of arms or flags.

-    Rossi could also be of Germanic origin, a derivative of the Germanic surname Ross, meaning horse, in reference to the red blankets of such animal.

 -   According to another hypothesis, it could derive from the Germanic name Rotz o Rutz, which, made up of the root ‘hrod‘ (glory, fame), can be translated as ‘glorious, famous’ (the same root, for example, is found in names such as Roberto, Rodolfo, Ruggero, Rolando).

 -   Another possible origin has a precise historical connotation linked to the progressive settlement in Italy of “barbarian” communities, with the typical common characteristic of the Slavic ethnic group of reddish hair and beard. Taking into account that the surname Rossi began to spread from the end of the 3rd century AD, in those areas where the settlements were stronger is obvious to suppose that it was a natural habit of the local population to indicate these families as “Russus, Rubeis, Rubeo, Russo, Russi, Rosso, Rossi”.

-    However, this surname could have another origin. For example: in Trieste, Rossi is related to the Slovenian Rosic and the Croatian Rusic. The ending -ic means “son of…”, since in Slovenian a stream is called red, and roggia is a term used in Lombardy to designate small canals or irrigation wells. Rossi could also derive from these two terms and the Rossis could simply be “those of the stream”, in the sense of those families who lived near a small stream or who had a related activity with it.

In Italy there are many surnames referring to hair colour or hair in general. There is Bianchi/Bianco (white), Neri/Nero (black), Biondi/Biondo (blond), Bruni/Bruno (brown). There’s also Calvi (referring to baldness) and Ricci (curls, although some argue that it derives from the coating of the chestnut or from the porcupine, riccio in Italian). As for other colours, there is Verdi, from verde, green (it’s not very widespread, but it's famous thanks to the composer Giuseppe Verdi) and Viola (which may refer not to the colour, but to the musical instrument).

The surnames Rossi and Russo have many derivatives (like many other surnames, as we have seen before).

From Rossi: Rosso, Rossa, Rosselli, Rosello, Rossella, Rossellini, Rossellino, Rossiello, Rossillo, Rossetti, Rossetto, Rosetto, Rossei, Rossettini, Rossini, Rossino, Rossin, Rossitto, Rossotti, Rossotto, Rossone, Rossoni, Rosson, Rossato.

From Russo: Russi, Ruggio,  Russitti, Russitto, Russello,  Russetti,  Russino, Russone, Russoni, Russotti, Russotto, Russian, Russiani, Ruggittu, La Russa, Lo Russo.


Also, in Italy there are more surnames that refer or may refer to red hair. Here they are:

- Rufini, Ruffini: from the Latin cognomen Rufus, redhead.

- Fulvi, di Fulvio: from the Latin fulvus, redhead.

- Carota: it may refer to carrot-coloured hair, or to the habit of growing/eating carrots.

-Rutelli, Rutella, Rutello: it may come from ruota (wheel), or from the Longobard rothar (red hair).

- Piromalli/Piromallo: it may come from pyrrhus, red.


So, why are the Rossi and Russo surnames so widespread in Italy? As you know, in Italy red hair is not very common. This is a chart by Ridolfo Livi, dating back to the Kingdom of Italy. 


The figures are per thousand, not percent, this means in Italy redhaired people are only the 0,58%, and maybe this is the origin of the strange case. If you live in a country where red hair is uncommon and you have red hair, or have relatives with red hair, you’ll be nicknamed “the redhead”, or “the one from the redheads”, and in this way you will be immediatly identifed by all your fellow villagers. My great-grandmother was nicknamed “Lucia la rossa” and her eldest daughter was nicknamed “Elisa la rossa”, even though she had brown hair. 


Out of curiosity, let's see which are the ten most common surnames in Italy.

Rossi, Russo, Ferrari, Esposito, Bianchi, Romano, Colombo, Ricci, Marino, Greco.


Ferrari refers to the job of blacksmith and basically it's the Italian version of Smith. Bianchi, as we have seen, may refer to white hair and Ricci to curly hair. Here you can find the ethymology (in English) of these surnames. 

But what about other countries? Are there something similar? Here you can find the links to lists of surnames all around the world. 

Let’s start with Spain, a country where, like Italy, red hair is not very common. The surname Rubio (from Latin rubeus, "red") ranks 37th.

In France, Roux ranks 18th. 

In the Uk we only have Brown ranking 5th.  😁

Interestingly, in Argentina Rossi ranks 30th, due to Italian immigrants. 

In Germany, Roth only ranks 58th, while Braun 21st and Schwarz (black) 19th.


In the light of all this, it seems that Italy is unique when it comes to surnames referring to red hair. 😉

Sources for this post:

Cognomix, Surnames in Italy, Origine dei cognomi italiani.

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