There are no skeletons in the closet in small-town Sicily, as the broader population identifies every individual member with distinct soprannome or nicknames.
These simple and often coarse caricatures have existed for generations and can pinpoint members of a particular family, or are earned after a significant event, distinctive physical feature or personality trait.
A nickname is very quickly gained as Sicilians are extraordinarily observant and judgemental. Don’t dare try to tick them off or you will be christened and branded behind your back with a name your children will most likely inherit.
The soprannomi are the secret code of a small town’s collective social knowledge. People are identified more regularly by their nicknames than by surnames. Some are proud of their pet names; others get embarrassed and downright peeved, so they are used behind people’s backs even if they are hardly a secret.
Some people flee their nicknames and their bad reputations, choosing to move to larger cities where no one knows them so they can start afresh or cast a wider net for their ill intentions.
These names identify every part of the social landscape, from the nobility to the working class.
There is a whole world of these Ingurie as they are known in the local dialect. Some simply indicate the trade or profession a particular family had done for generations before, such as fulgiare (blacksmith), tamburinaro (drummer) and u ruccaloru (stone carter).
Others refer to class differences within the town; for example, at Sinagra, the Cardaci family were once a wealthy clan. Those who didn’t maintain their prosperity became known as the Carddidi (literally a belittled version of the original Cardaci family name).
Some nicknames are superficial, identifying a particular physical feature like la pillusa (the hairy lady), friumentina (literally hair the colour of wheat, i.e., blonde), menzaricci (half ear) and nasolungo (long nose).
These creative pet names have their sense of musicality and are a language unto themselves. It is not uncommon for them to be handed down from father to son, and in doing so, many have lost their original meaning with the evolution of the language and people’s lives.
The dialect of these nicknames is as vivid and alive as always.
A small list of names plucked from everyday conversation creates an exotic ménage of words. I can only imagine how on earth these enigmatic names were earned: la boldgiadina (the flying hen), settecappelli (seven hats), la boccia (the jar), cafetteria (coffee percolator), Africano (African), Filipino (Philippino), biscotto (biscuit), sautafosse (jumping trenches), zilipudo (chameleon), papa (pope), vescovo (bishop), storto (crooked), Americana (the American), cernega (hunting dog), spinoza (terrier), scanata (slaughtered), sgaramulo (wasp) and u Rizzu (the hedgehog).
An array of names have lost their meaning through time and the evolving Italian language; words like giatman, puranca, callido, parasacco, sgaddati, and u monci all have remained in use without anyone knowing their true meaning.
These soprannomi can be entirely satirical but precisely identify people in society. Not everyone has the honour or curse of having one, depending on your point of view.
The names illustrate a unique relationship people have with one another and how Sicily has created its own concise and impenetrable social dialect.
It seems I, too, have earned a nickname, which I discovered rather clumsily, one morning at the local markets.
As I was negotiating myself through a crowd scrambling around different stalls. I often see faces I recognise yet cannot put names to.
Passing in front of an older man whose face seemed familiar yet I couldn’t place, I heard him say ‘Australiana’ under his breath.
I kept on walking, pretending I didn’t understand him. Hearing someone identifying me as ‘the Australian’ was like being ridiculed. I thought I wouldn’t mind having a sopranome, yet being pointed out as a foreigner by people who don’t know what it means to be an Australian felt humiliating.
At least he didn’t call me Americana.
I suppose it’s a step in the right direction, as once all people who came from overseas and spoke English were once dumped under one generalised title by Sicilians.