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Tirolean Names

August 30, 2019

I have always loved names, especially Tirolean surnames. Surnmaes were invented after first names ceased to distinguish various people in small villages and towns. Prior to the year 800, people usually only had given names in the Tirol. Hence, you find Johannes fu (or von) Dominicus to simply describe the birth of Johannes, son of Dominicus. It was a simple naming convention and it worked… for awhile.

Surnames were then used to distinguish between the various people having the same given name in any particular population center. They were often fashioned after the patriarch’s given name. Of the various Johannes living in one spot, the surname was added; perhaps Dominici to distinguish a particular Johannes who was descended from Dominicus. Surnames were always descriptive and were intended to differentiate for reasons of census and taxation.

But as populations grew, there were too many people of the same given name and same surname in any one location. Confusion once again reigned. In my native village of Cloz for example, there were many people named Giovanni Rizzi at any one time. What to do? In the Tirol, sopranomi (nicknames) were introduced.

Sopranomi were first used to distinguish people with identical names living in one population center or town. If there were too many Johannes Dominicis in one area, the sopronome helped to discern which Johannes Dominici was being named in any instance.

Sopranomi vary widely in the Tirol. Some are taken from physical characteristic, others from one’s occupation and still others from the patriarch of the family. I was, for example, born Picolo Alessandro di Eugenio Valentino Von Rizzi Regin. The last of this huge moniker is my soprnome, Regin. It derives from the fact that a very distant ancestor once worked in the court of Maria Teresa of Austria (regin = queen in our dialect) as a secretary. My grandmother’s sopranome was Segala, indicating that one of her ancestors was known for being born in a rye field. Sopranomi were mandatory for many years as populations in the Tirol grew. Both governments and local residents had to know who exactly was being referred to. Today, they are of little real importance although most families still carry them with pride as a cherished piece of their heritage. In fact in some villages, people are still known only by their sopranome rather than their surname.

But let’s turn our attention to those wonderful Tirolean surnames. Many simply mean “sons of” such as Michelini, Bertagnolli, Martinelli, Giuliani (sons of Michael, Umberto, Martin and Julian). Of all Tirolean surnames, this type is the most common. Hundreds of examples can be found, many ending in “i.” Sometimes surnames of German origin have been Italianized such as Gebardi (sons of Gebhart, which in turn means hardy and brave). Other Germanic surnames have survived intact such as Larcher (living among the larch ((tamarack)) trees), Mayrhofer (from the region of Mayrhof in Austria.) and Kirschbaumer (cherry grower).

Still other surnames are descriptive of physical characteristics such as my own surname Rizzi, which simply means “curly haired.” In my native village of Cloz in the Val di Non, there are only a few surnames: Angeli (Angels), Franch (free of taxation), Gembrini (born in December), Flor (flower), Floretta (little flower), Zanoni (sons of John), Canestrini (little jars), Rauzi (root harvesters) and of course Rizzi.

Yet other surnames describe a trade or residence location. These are commonly found in both the Italian and German rooted languages. Some examples of trade referenced surnames include Zadra (weavers), Kofler (land surveyors), Geiser (goat herders), Sartori (tailors), Mitterer (carpenters), Preti (priests), and Zucali (pumpkin growers).
Examples of residence referenced surnames include Aufderklamm (living on the gorge), Plattner (living on level fields), Egger (living on the corner), DalRi (living near the river), DallaValle (living in the valley), Dalsass (living among the stones), Dalpiaz (living in the piazza), Clauser (from Cloz) and Ausserer (living outside the edge of town).

Sometimes, surnames are super obvious. I recently saw a funeral notice for a woman whose maiden name was Carotta (carrot) and whose married name was Stanchina (a little tired). I joked that she had passed away as a “carrot who was a little tired.” Actually, the woman lived to 103 years; not bad for a tired old vegetable!

In all cases Tirolean surnames actually mean something, even if it has been lost in ancient local dialect. That’s where genealogists like me come in. Many of us are able to trace the exact origin of surnames, even if those words or names no longer exist or have been drastically changed.

Tirolean names – They are interesting and most have a very long and traceable history. If you would like your Tirolean name researched, please get in touch with me. Genealogy is what I do. You may contact me here:

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  1. Very interesting post! Buonasera!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Interesting. Names always carry history. Many times unknown to those who bear the name.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Names do indeed carry a ton of history and yes, you’re right; many people have no idea of where their surname came from and what it means.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Dear. Signor Queenie. I loved this post and found both interesting and informative. Thanks for sharing it with us.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. L.Roach permalink

    What a wonderful and informative post! My sopranome is “Lanci” and I have been told that it means lance in old German. Not sure if this is correct or not, but it has been in use since about 1600, according to baptismal documents. My Tyrolean cousins still use the sopranome and you can see it inscribed on recent tombstones in the Castelfondo cemetery.

    As for my surname of “Genetti”, it started out as “Genet”. There are several theories behind this. One being that it is a form of the name Eugene. Another theory is that it is related to the common broom plant that grows wild (similiar to the yellow flowering gorse of Ireland). I do find it interesting that the English/French dynasty of “Plantagenet” literally means “sprig of broom” – and contains “genet” in its root.

    Thanks again Allen for another insightful blog post!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. L.Roach permalink

    Yes, I’ve seen that noted in several places. It’s very interesting since I know of know Eugenio at all in our family history. Supposedly the surname was given to the family in 1265 and is notated in the Codex Clesiano (this is stated in two different books of heraldry). But I have another cousin who’s mother was a linguist and worked with an expert in surnames. He proposed the theory of Genet referencing the broom plant. Personally, I think the true source of the name is lost to time.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The only other theory I have heard of is that the name comes from “Genesi” (genesis) and refers to the founders of Castelfondo. (By the way, the Genetti stemma might support that theory.)

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Thanks for sharing so many name origins. It’s always a fascinating topic. My birth name, Halse, is apparently of Norse origin and meaning – from a neck of land (like a peninsula) – and there was a place called Halse in Norway, though it no longer exists.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Veldig interessant.


  8. Reblogged this on allenrizzi and commented:

    From the recent archives…

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Gene Wunderlich permalink

    My Nona From Cloz was Ermida Consolata Canestrini. She married Girolamo Franch. Great article. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

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