Library program will explore 'American' surnames

Patrick Varine
| Sunday, March 17, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

James Pagane has the wrong last name. Kind of.

“My family moved to Penn Hills in 1945 and my father changed his last name from ‘Pagani' to ‘Pagane,'” he said.

“My mother's family would never have let her marry an Italian, so he changed the ‘i' to an ‘e' and told them his family was French!”

Pagane's uncles still retain the family's original Italian surname, and theirs is a story that has been repeated countless times in American history.

Professor John Webber put it plainly.

“There is no such thing as an American name, aside from Native American names,” he said.

Webber, who teaches at the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University, local community colleges and private schools, will present, “American Names and Their Meaning” today, Thursday, at the William E. Anderson Library of Penn Hills.

Webber said the first “American” surnames came with early settlers and colonials, who brought a variety of names from the British Isles.

“After that came primarily Germans, Quakers and people from the Netherlands, and they all brought surnames, too,” he said.

Leaving for many reasons — namely new opportunities or to escape a wide variety of oppression, be it political, economic or otherwise — newly arrived immigrants often wanted to meld in with the existing population, Webber said.

“I have a handout (for the lecture) of the top 100 American names, and most of those names are translatable from another language. I try to show how people came to America and what the names mean.

“All names mean something.”

The most popular American surname, Smith, accounts for about 5 percent of U.S. citizens. It is descended from the German “Schmidt” or “Schmied,” which was an occupational surname: hammersmiths, silversmiths, goldsmiths — Hammerschmidt, Silberschmied, Goldschmidt.

Ellis Island

While many immigrants purposely altered or “Americanized” their surnames, others had their family name changed as they arrived on New York's Ellis Island.

Pittsburgh attorney James Calaiaro is only too familiar with that scenario.

“My father's family, who were from the Calabria and Reggio regions of Italy, came through Ellis Island and as they went through, each one of them got a different spelling on their last name,” he said.

Consequently, he has an uncle Joe Colorio, an uncle Ernie Calairio, and an uncle Frank Calorio.

“We still don't know what the original spelling was,” Calaiaro said, adding that about four years ago, he applied for a passport and had to return to his native New Jersey to get a copy of his birth certificate.

“It looks like a dog license, because it was corrected two or three times,” he said.

“My mother said when I was born, they spelled my name wrong, and my father absolutely refused to have me go through what he went through. He kept going to the local bureau of records to have it corrected until it was the same as his.”

Webber said newly arrived immigrants faced a host of challenges.

“Back when people were coming to this country (in its earlier days), most of them could not read or write,” Webber said.

“They said what their name was, and the clerks wrote it down. But some of those clerks weren't born in America, they were from Germany or Ireland, maybe. So they wrote it down the way they heard it.”

Webber said when clerks would check passenger manifests, they occasionally would ask passengers their names and make spelling changes to simplify surnames.

Webber's lecture will take place at 7 p.m. at the library, located at 1037 Stotler Road.

The cost to attend is $2. For more information, call 412-795-3507.

Patrick Varine is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7845 or

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