CL - Geography

Nomi d’Italia: origine e significato dei nomi geografici e di tutti i comuni [Names of Italy: Origin and Meaning of Geographic Names and of All the Communes]. Ed. Renzo Ambrogio et al. Novara: Istituto geografico De Agostini, 2009. 439 p. 20 cm. ISBN 978-88-511-1412-1: EUR 9.90

An RREA Original Review by Rebecca R. Malek-Wiley (Tulane University)

This toponomastic dictionary, which may also be termed an etymological gazetteer, covers all of the comuni [communes, municipalities] and administrative regions of Italy designated as of 2001 or in annual official updates 2002-2009, expanding the content of the first, 2004 edition. Also included are major geographic features such as mountains, the principal rivers and valleys, lakes, seas, and islands. It contains over 8,400 entries.

Introductory material sets out the criteria for inclusion, the elements of each entry, and the use of certain symbols. The bulk of the book consists of an alphabetically arranged listing under the current Italian name, with names that include generic terms filed under the first specific element; for example, Lago di Garda [Lake Garda] is entered “Garda, Lago di.” Each entry (in green) contains an indication of the pronunciation; the abbreviation for the province in which the place is located; the language and term or terms (in italics) from which the name derives, including any applicable prefixes and suffixes, often with the literal Italian translation; and, when documented, the first attested form. Many entries track changes in the form or meaning of a name, with dates whenever possible, providing brief explanations, alternative proposed explanations, or statements that the etymology is uncertain or unknown. As one example, the Tremiti Islands had the ancient name Insulae Diomedeae [Islands of Diomedes], after the mythical Greek hero supposedly buried there, whereas the current name was derived from Tremetis, a form first attested in the 7th century of uncertain meaning, possibly derived from the Latin termes [olive-tree branch]. For comuni, the number of inhabitants and the name by which they are collectively known—l’etnonimo [the ethnonym]—are also given; for example, the residents of Marcellina are termed marcellinesi. Ethnonyms are in a sans-serif font different from the rest of the entry.

Cross-references indicated by arrows direct the user to alternative forms under which names are entered (e.g., from Romagna to Emilia-Romagna) or to related place names, such as references from “Cinque Terre”—a group of five villages along the Ligurian coast—to the individual village names. The book ends with brief tables on the phonetic symbols, abbreviations, and transcription of the Greek alphabet used, as well as a glossary of etymological and linguistic terms.

While there is no bibliography, it is clear that a range of sources has been consulted. The languages from which the Italian place names are derived include Latin, Greek, Celtic, Germanic, Arabic, the ancient languages of the Liguri and Volsci, other Indo- European languages, Phoenician, and others. The earliest attested forms have been drawn from archival sources such as official documents, in addition to early maps; on the other hand, no maps are provided. Ancient authors (e.g., Strabo, Virgil, and Polybius) are cited in some etymologies.

The initial pronunciation guide is very helpful for those who take the time to read it. For example, an acute accent is given to indicate an open “e” or “o,” whereas the grave accent designates a closed “e” or “o.” A caveat is that people not versed in Italian who do not first read this guide could misinterpret such accents as part of the spelling itself, which may not be the case; for example, the entry “Sardégna” represents the name Sardegna [Sardinia]. The green entries stand out conveniently (except for the colorblind) for quick scanning, as do the variations in font style.

The compilers themselves state that they consulted as a very useful source the larger Dizionario di toponomastica: storia e significato dei nomi geografici italiani [Toponomastic Dictionary: History and Meaning of Italian Geographic Names], by Giuliano Gasca Queirazza et al. (Torino, 1990; 2d ed. 1997), which includes a bibliography. Another somewhat comparable source is Dizionario degli etnici e dei toponimi italiani (DETI) [Dictionary of Italian Peoples and Place Names], by Teresa Cappello and Carlo Tagliavini (Bologna, 1981). DETI is broader in geographic scope than Nomi d’Italia, as appendices address areas outside of Italy where Italian place names can be found, such as San Marino and Ticino. On the other hand, while it includes ethnonyms, variant place names, and pronunciations, it rarely gives etymologies and does not discuss the development of names, but rather, via bibliographic citations, functions more or less as an index to such information in other resources. Although these compilations are ultimately more authoritative for scholars, Nomi d’Italia is more informative within its own covers than DETI, as well as being more up to date than both of the more extensive dictionaries.

An etymological and pronunciation guide to place names can be very useful practically, as well as enlightening as an aid to better understanding of local history and ethnology. Nomi d’Italia is an information-rich if not definitive resource. While it provides less scholarly apparatus than Dizionario di toponomastica or DETI, its content reflects careful research, as well as the effort to be current. Furthermore, the fact that it wears its scholarship lightly contributes to its compact size, which, together with its generally thoughtful design and reasonable price, makes it useful not only in an academic context for student and faculty quick reference and initial exploration, but also handy to take along on one’s Italian travels.

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Last update: January 2013 [LC]
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