1. Introduction
  2. Some rambling thoughts
  3. A stratigraphy of Maltese surnames
  4. Hull’s theory of a Girgenti colony
  5. Early census taking and surname rankings
  6. Census 2005 and the commonest surnames in Malta
  7. The pantheon of Maltese surnames
  8. Surname frequencies by location
  9. A snapshot of Gozo
  10. The ‘Australian’ parallel sample
  11. Cognates and doublets
  12. Multiple surnames
  13. Extinct surnames

Some rambling thoughts

If there is one thing that interests the general public, and therefore the media, it is the relative popularity of personal names. Many people are fascinated by the meaning of names, including surnames and place-names. Names acquire a new dimension when it is revealed that, for example, Sacco can be a truncated form of Biblical name Isacco, that Anastasi is a Greek name meaning ‘resurrection’, or that Zerafa is an Arabic name meaning ‘giraffe’. The Internet has undoubtedly augmented the craving for such inquisition; it provides a wealth of information on the subject of names, but not all of this, of course, is of reliable quality.

Anthroponomy, like any other branch of onomastics, is fundamentally a linguistic science, but it is inevitably loaded with historical, social, anthropological, and geographic inferences. It is consequently a multi-disciplinary enterprise, susceptible to all kinds of pitfalls. The lack of a comprehensive and systematic study of Maltese surnames, for instance, is related to the objective difficulty of undertaking such an arduous task in a situation where research is either scanty or prohibitively fragmented.

Apart from the obvious cultural connotations, surnames also carry an hereditary dimension, as well as spatial (geographic distribution) and temporal (diachronic fluctuations). Each surname has at least four relevant values: typological, semantic, quantitative, and distributional. In other words, a surname, first of all falls into some broad category (i.e. patronym/matronym, toponym, occupation/status, nickname); it has a meaning which can be explained; it has numeric significance (i.e. very common, common, somewhat rare, ephemeral), and also has a particular spatial diffusion (i.e. distributed across the whole country or concentrated in some area).

Demographic and linguistic changes in various parts of the world, particularly those parts which have been colonized, as in Malta, have led to the demise of many names and the birth of others. At all times and in all places the onomasticon has been in a state of flux. Of the stock of names in use today the oldest were generally created during the Middle Ages. As regards Malta, the general diffusion of last names is related to the re-Christianization of the island after almost four centuries of Muslim domination and post-colonial influence. By 1300, a certain permanence and stability of surnames was already established, even though the standardization of contemporary family names was only realized in the 16th and 17th centuries under the acute pressure of the Church clerics and civil notaries. (12) In this regard, the great significance of the Status Animarum (diocesan census) of Malta carried out in 1687 cannot be underestimated. (13)

At this stage, it is still necessary to extinguish some popular myths: One is that persons sharing the same surname are necessarily related to each other; the other is that the provenance of a particular surname can ascertain the ethnic extraction of its bearer. The first misconception can be dealt with quite casually. Let say someone living in a certain town is known as Sarto (according to his occupation), or De Marco (according to his father’s name); it is neither improbable nor surprising that someone else, living hundreds of miles away, also happens to be a tailor, or happens to be the son of another Marco. These individuals might eventually acquire the same surname without even knowing each other. Similarly, the Longos (a nickname) and the Catanias (a place-name) of one locality were not necessarily related to the Longos and the Catanias of another.

Besides, as family names began to acquire emotive and dynastic significance in the Late Middle Ages, the handing on of a surname became a matter of pride. Men sometimes sought to keep their surname alive by encouraging collateral to adopt it when they had no direct descendants of their own in the male line. This norm has been amply documented, at least, in England, but must have been equally practiced in Italy, Sicily, and Malta.

The actual origin of a surname does not imperatively infer the national identity of one’s ancestors. Two blatant facts from Maltese history can easily prove the point and dispel the second misconception. In the Late Middle Ages, many local inhabitants of Arab or Jewish descent adopted Romance calques of their original Semitic names in line with the cultural and religious demands of the time. By way of example, to-day’s Paces do not necessarily have an Italian lineage; their forefathers could have been called Shalom or Salem.

During the period of the Knights, many freed slaves opted to endorse the surname of their former masters out of obligation, as much as out of convenience, so as to solicit brighter prospects of social acceptance. In similar fashion, converts normally acquired the surname of their master or their god-parent at their baptism. Some contemporary Maltese, bearing Italian, French, or Spanish surnames, could be, in fact, directly descended from such stock, and hence have no real relation to the original bearer of their surname.

Another factor of relevance to Maltese nomenclature needs to be cleared up. Old documents supply ample evidence of local villages being named after one of its prominent inhabitants, presumably from the ranks of the landed gentry, and not vice-versa. Hence surnames such as Lia, Balzan, Attard, Chircop (Kirkop), Asciaq (Għaxaq), Curmi (Qormi), and Dingli do not stem from the name of the locality; it is the toponym which derives from the surname, which itself derives from a given name or a surname (14). In other words, these are not location surnames.

Another fallacy is that old surnames recorded in medieval documents necessarily prove the antiquity of contemporary ones. For example, the De la Licata, De Catania, De Ursu, De Laurenzu, registered in 15th century Militia or Anagra list are not necessarily related to the bearers of present-day Delicta, Catania, Urso, De Lorenzo.

Notes:
  1. S. Mercieca, ‘From a Rural Livelihood to Cosmopolitan Vocation: Tracing the Origins of the Melchiorre and Lorenzo Gafà,’ in Melitensium Amor - Festschrift in Honour of Dun Ġwann Azzopardi, Malta, 2002, p. 278.
  2. Cf. S. Fiorini, ‘Status Animarum II: A Census of 1687,’ in Proceedings of History Week 1984, Malta, 1986, pp. 325--44.
  3. S. Fiorini, ‘Sicilian Connexions of Some Medieval Surnames,’ in Journal of Maltese Studies, No. 17 & 18 (1987– 88), p. 132.

  1. Introduction
  2. Some rambling thoughts
  3. A stratigraphy of Maltese surnames
  4. Hull’s theory of a Girgenti colony
  5. Early census taking and surname rankings
  6. Census 2005 and the commonest surnames in Malta
  7. The pantheon of Maltese surnames
  8. Surname frequencies by location
  9. A snapshot of Gozo
  10. The ‘Australian’ parallel sample
  11. Cognates and doublets
  12. Multiple surnames
  13. Extinct surnames
Top