February 28, 2007

Give yourself an Italian name!

Christopher Wlach wrote to me to tell me that he dined at an Olive Garden restaurant the other night, and noticed that the children's menu — which comes with crayons — had the following as a suggested activity:

You're an Italian artist! Give yourself an Italian-sounding name by taking the first syllable of your last name and adding "elli." Draw your masterpiece in the frame below--don't forget to sign it!

He tried it, of course, and got "Wlachelli", which didn't look all that Italian. How does it work on your name? I wonder how frequent -elli is as the ending of an Italian surname anyway. (Not nearly as frequent as ending in a vowel, that's for damn sure.) The Italians I can immediately think of have names ending in -ani, -ano, -asi, -erdi, -etti,-ini, -izzi, -neo, -odi, -one, -oni, and -uzzi. Perhaps I have encountered a biased sample.

By the way, Steve of Languagehat points out to me that — strangely enough — Chris's name, Wlach, is a Slavic root that sort of means... Italian! Though only sort of. Jon Nighswander supplies a few more precise details about this. In Polish, the adjective meaning "Italian" is włoska, and Italy is Włochy. Wlach actually means "Wallachian", or "Vlach". The Vlachs were the Latinised people of south central Europe — the descendants of the Roman colonists in Thrace whose descendants are for the most part the modern Romanians. During the middle ages Wlach and its many variants (vlasi, vlahi, etc. etc.) seemed to have been used by Slavic peoples fairly indiscriminately for any speaker of a Romance language. Włoska is etymologically related to Wlach, but it would not quite be true to say Wlach is the usual word for an Italian.

Jon also notes that -elli is certainly not atypically common in Italian surnames. It's not rare — Petruzzelli is apparently common in Puglia for example, and Agnelli is certainly well known — but really not unusually frequent either, so it's an oddly random choice for making your name Italian.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at February 28, 2007 01:12 AM