Is there any significance to Italian last names beginning with de, del, or della ("of," "of the")? Do they indicate nobility? Someone told me that della is the highest rank.
Illustration by Slug Signorino
Don’t get your hopes up, your lordship. Once in a while de, della, and the like mean the family was, if not noble, at least a cut above the common herd. But more often the prefix is merely the equivalent of the Irish Mac or O, the English suffix -son (e.g., Johnson), or the Norman-French Fitz — that is, it indicates descent, as in de Stefano, “son of Steven.” Or it may indicate place of origin, as in del Corso, “dweller near the highway.” Roughly the same holds true of French and Spanish names. I’ve been told that if the initial D is capitalized it signifies noble origin, but knowing how much immigrant names got scrambled en route to the New World I wouldn’t place too much faith in this.
Della has nothing to do with rank; quite the contrary. The surname of New York ad man Jerry Della Femina means “of the woman”; this can mean the original Della Femina was illegitimate, though not necessarily.
The rarely seen prefix degli, as in degli Alberti, is one of the few semireliable indications that an Italian family was once part of the gentry, if not the nobility. Degli Alberti means “of the Alberts,” and was used in central and northern Italy to mean a family that had become sufficiently grand to refer to itself in the plural.
The situation is clearer with German names. The prefix von means “of” and was originally appended to all sorts of names, most of them pretty humble. But at some point over the centuries von came to mean that the family had been ennobled — or at least they’d like you to think so. For example, the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, from the West German city of Aachen, was originally Ludwig Mies; he added the rest (Rohe was his mom’s maiden name) to give himself a little more status when pitching impressionable clients. Quoth a biographer: “He would not have dared to assume a designation of real German nobility, like `von,’ but `van der’ was permissible; it sounded faintly elegant to the German ear though it was common enough to the Dutch.”
Some folks, happily, are above all this faux nobility jive. The writer Sanche de Gramont came from a noble French family but on moving to the United States changed his name to Ted Morgan, an anagram of his old last name, to celebrate his embrace of democracy. I trust you’ll take his example to heart.
You goofed in your column on surname prefixes. Mac is a Scottish prefix, not Irish. The Irish use Mc instead.
A common belief, but wrong. As Edward MacLysaght writes in A Guide to Irish Surnames, “Reference should again be made to one popular misconception, often held outside Ireland, viz. that all Mac names are Scottish — with such well known Irish names as MacCarthy, Macnamara, MacMahon and MacGuinness prominent all over the world this should not be necessary, yet the illusion seems to persist.”
A failure to communicate
In a recent column you stated (correctly) that in Italian surnames del, della, and the like are not an indication of noble lineage. You erred, however, when you said plurals such as degli and dei do indicate nobility. In Italian there are seven definite articles: the singular il, lo, la, and l’ and the plural i, gli and le. When an article follows the preposition di (“of”), the two words combine to create del, dello, della, dell’, dei, degli, or delle. All mean “of the.”
Dei and degli simply indicate the plural. The name dei Corsi means “of the highways,” just as del Corso means “of the highway.” Use of dei, degli, etc., in no way implies that one family was nobler than another.
As so often happens in this wicked world, Cecil has been misunderstood. I did not mean to suggest that use of the plural necessarily meant nobility, only that it sometimes did, especially when used with a proper name (e.g., degli Alberti). You can see why. If you were to introduce yourself rather grandly as David of the Bowies (and by the way, Dave, what’s a rock legend such as yourself doing in Greenbelt, Maryland?), people would definitely get the idea that you considered yourself one of the swells.
For similar reasons the would-be big bananas of the Italian Renaissance referred to themselves in the plural; thus Lorenzo de’ (short for dei) Medici, Lorenzo of the Medicis. In short, a plural could well mean you’re descended from the quality, especially if your family came from central or northern Italy.
But it’s just as likely you’re an ordinary shlub. Another of Cecil’s correspondents points out that Thomas della Fave, the name of the guy who originally wanted to know if he came from nobility, translates as “Thomas of the Beans.” What’s more, it’s misspelled — it should properly be delle Fave. One more reason to think twice before putting on airs.
The truth comes out
You are absolutely right about my name being spelled wrong. When my father died in 1973, I saw for the first time his naturalization papers. I was shocked that it read “Delle Fave.”
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.