Wednesday, February 25, 2009

On a Name

I've been fascinated with names for a while now - it goes along with my general fascination with etymology in general. I think about it a lot, and it occurred to me the other day that I may have put together enough thoughts to make an interesting blog post.

Take my last name - Zamarro. My father is Italian, and according to him the Zamarros were from Calabria. The name, however, is Spanish. It comes from the Segovia region. How the Zamarros got from Segovia to Calabria is anyone's guess. Well into the nineteenth century, Spanish lords ruled southern Italy and Sicily and this is a likely cause of the transfer. I can't imagine the name existing for more than a hundred years in Italy without being changed, so I imagine that my Spanish ancestors came to Italy in the nineteenth century. That would probably mean that I am at least, in some small part, of Spanish blood.

The meaning of the name is still somewhat of a mystery. In Spanish "Zamarro" is a name for a rough winter jacket made from sheep hide. It is what shepherds wore in the fields during the winter. It could have been the name of one who wore such a jacket, or one who made them. So perhaps my name meant 'shepherd' or 'tailor'.

There is actually a Swiss heavy metal band named 'Zamarro'. According to their website, 'Zamarro' has become a by-word for 'gangster' in Spanish. So perhaps my ancestors were thugs and crooks.

Basically, I have no meaningful connection with my last name. It could mean any number of things, but it is as many as four degrees separated from my current life and situation.

This brings us to the origins of names, and what they meant. In this article, I am mostly interested in last names. I could write at least one more article about first names, but one at a time.

Last names, as far as I can tell, were either used to denote some type of noble title or else they were mere descriptors of trade or origin. We're all familiar with names such as 'carpenter' or 'sawyer'. Names such as 'Krakowski' or 'Calabrizzi' indicate a city or region of origin. And, obviously, there are patronymic names such as 'Johnson' or 'Mikalevich' that indicate the first name of the father.

I married my wife, a Donahue, who became a Zamarro. She's 100 percent Irish. Donahue is a gaelic patronymic. I believe that the Irish had an idea of 'clan' that doesn't really fall into the categories outlined above. It could be that this idea of 'clan' is really what we deal with today. In this model, a name is a memorial of a beloved or reknown ancestor that passes along to his descendants and even their hangers-on.

However, I have a feeling that last names are becoming something else - a placeholder. If we continue to be alienated from the meaning of our names, isn't there a danger that they are just a convenient way of finding someone in a phonebook? What's in a name, indeed.

To be honest, I am somewhat desperate to find some meaning in my name. It will be part of my legacy to my own children. What does it mean to be a 'Zamarro', after all? I'm not so sure. I've thought of changing my name to something else - not necessarily out of any shame about my existing name but to create a name with which I have some identification; perhaps to 'Engineer'.

That probably won't happen. The solution, it seems to me, is to find out about the name and to immerse myself in its history. That would seem to be the only way to inject meaning into the name.

But what of the threat of names becoming superficial identifiers? My children will be 50 percent Irish, 25 percent Italian, 13 percent Anglo-Scottish, and about 10 percent Swedish. Will being a 'Zamarro' really mean something to them throughout their lives.

I'm not sure. In some sense, my children will face a very real dilution of their culture. We are now 'Americans', whatever that means, and we have very little common cultural identification. The immigration history of the last two-hundred years has left us somewhat culturally empty.

It will be interesting to see how this cultural emptiness is filled, if at all. Cultural dynamics of this type are hard to predict. It could be that my children will find themselves accepted by the majority Latino population of the future U.S. due to their Spanish name. Talk about a melting pot.

No comments: