There’s not much diversity in surnames here in Malta and a mere handful go to making up most of island’s phone directory. We’re asked time and again by foreign visitors about this repetition of Maltese family names. So, at Malta Inside Out, we decided to explain the naming game, thanks to guest blogger, Nanette Johnson, aka Ms Gourmet, of www.gourmetworrier.com.
Nanette lives in Melbourne, Australia, but is the daughter of a Gozitan father and a Maltese mother who emigrated in the ’60s. She relates a warming tale, told to her on holiday ‘back home’ in Gozo, of how the Maltese get around the same-name phenomenon by inventing a wonderful system of nicknames! To get the full story, you’ll need to know that her blog has a bumblebee and honeycomb symbol on it.
How it came to Bee
My father is originally from the island of Gozo, Malta’s sister island. Gozo is a tiny island and it is predominantly Catholic. Traditionally parents would name their children after Saints – Mary, Marija, Joseph, Josephine, Nazarene, Victoria, Victor, Anthony, Antoinette, Francis, Francesca et al. As you can imagine there are a whole lot of Joe’s & Mary’s running around on that tiny island.
One of the ways they overcame this name overlap was to give families nicknames. So Joe Bonello would be referred to as Joe tal Korkos (which is in fact my paternal grandfathers family nickname). Don’t ask me what ‘Korkos’ means, or to translate it into English or how it came to be. I have asked my relatives this at least a hundred times and every time I am met with that look that says ‘what island are you on?
My paternal grandmother’s family nickname is ‘zunzana’ and thankfully this nickname is translatable. Hence, one of its meanings is ‘bumblebee’. In Maltese, a bee is also a ‘nahla’ but ‘zunzana’ is onomatopoeic in that it refers to insects that make that ‘znznzn’ noise and that sting. When I was in Gozo recently I asked my aunt if she knew how the ‘zunzana’ nickname evolved. Was it because the women on my grandmother’s side of the family had a sting to them? Or did they have a sharp, unforgiving edge about them?
Again I got that blank stare that said ‘what planet where you raised on child’?
And so my aunt then explained that the name ‘zunzana’ – the ‘bumblebee’ is symbolic for cleverness, industry and life. My great grandmother, grandmother, great aunts and aunts not only raised huge families and ran households and estates, but they also tended to the fields, were great mothers and homemakers and brilliant cooks. In essence they were immortal.
I knew instantly that I wanted the bumblebee to be a part of my blog, Gourmet Worrier. Thus, the humble little bumblebee is my subtle tribute to all of the wonderful women in my family who were great mothers, creative souls and brilliant cooks!
Main Photo: Walter Lo Cascio
Inset Photo: courtesy of gourmetworrier
Mary Riley says
Hi, I’ve been wondering about the reason for my late Mum’s family nickname ” tal Paddy” Her maiden name was Borg, one of the most common names in Malta. She was born in Sliema. Her Father was in the mounted police in Malta.
I’m very proud to be half Maltese and would love to know if anyone has any idea about this nickname.
Dan Brock says
It’s my wife, not me, who is of Maltese birth, but I’m very interested in the Maltese culture, even if we live in Canada. Now, according to the great linguist Joseph Aquilina, the word “konkos” means concrete, as has been noted above, but, in Gozo, it also refers to a cake made of cheese and beans, again according to Aquilina.
Elizabeth Ayling says
@Carmel, thanks for the ancedotes and chipping in to the article. Always love to hear the etymology of these names. It’s always fascinated me how few surnames there are in Malta. Some are similar but with variant spellings – Zammit, Sammut – probably defined by whether the family Europeanised an Arabic-sounding name. Does anyone know if this is a correct assumption?
Carmel Vella says
For A. Camileri. My Maltese is terrible nowadays since I left home at 16 and is travelling round the world. BUT. If I remember correctly L’agien is pasta as in spaghetti . Sounds close enough to Nagen. Perhaps the family was well known for making pasta locally. Near my home in Balzan in the fifties, we had one family that baked breads , a very small business , but they were called tal hobz. No one could mistake them by THAT name. Briliant.
Tkx for your help, much appreciated.
Elizabeth Ayling says
@a.camilleri, I suggest you post up this query on our Facebook wall as well. I am sure you’ll find someone who knows! I’ll see if I can ask around too…
does anyone know what the nickname TA-NAGEN means?
Andrew Galea Debono says
Enjoyable post, Nannette! Indeed, in Malta there are some places where, more than others, you can find a whole load of family nicknames. Rabat would be the main town that I know of. Recently I wrote an article about Crystal Palace Bar in Rabat – that is actually known as ‘Tas-Serkin’ rather than by any other name. In Rabat I even heard of one family who’s nickname came from the fact that one of their ancestors was … ahem … well-endowed! Another place where I hear of many nicknames is Birgu (Vittoriosa).
It’s funny that you mention Joes and Marys … We have many of those in our family – and my grandfather having the super-most common surname ‘Galea’ and my uncle being the ‘John Smith’ or ‘Giuseppe Rossi’ equivalent of Malta: Joe Galea, my dad and his brothers decided to do another things which many Maltese do to avoid the anonymity of a common surname. They basically added my grandmother’s surname – another really common surname ‘Debono’ – to create our current surname ‘Galea Debono’. It may be less amusing than a nickname, but you can find hundreds of ‘Joe Galea’s in the telephone directory… but only one Joe Galea Debono!
That is so funny because one of the Korkos familial characteristics is utter stubbornness and hard headedness! I have just looked up ‘Kelmit il-Malti Dizzjunarju and it states that ‘concrete’ is in fact ‘konkrit/konkret’ so i’m a bit confused as to ‘konkos’ as i’m not familiar with that word.
But a couple of words down the list is ‘konnkussjoni’ which means
‘concussion’. So maybe my great, great grandfather fell over one day and knocked his head and suffered from mild concussion and ‘Korkos’ is a derivative of that word – who knows?
I guess that’s one of the downfalls of oral tradition – things get lost in translation over the course of time!
What a lovely post!
Could “Korkos” be derived from “konkos” (concrete)?”