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The Straight Dope

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Is there any significance to Italian last names beginning with de, del, or della ("of," "of the")? Do they indicate nobility? Someone told me that della is the highest rank. --Thomas Della Fave, Irving, Texas

Don't get your hopes up, your lordship. Once in a while de, della, and the like mean the family was, if not noble, at least a cut above the common herd. But more often the prefix is merely the equivalent of the Irish Mac or O, the English suffix -son (e.g., Johnson), or the Norman-French Fitz--that is, it indicates descent, e.g., de Stefano, "son of Steven." Or it may indicate place of origin, as in del Corso, "dweller near the highway." Roughly the same holds true of French and Spanish names. I've been told that if the initial D is capitalized it signifies noble origin, but knowing how much immigrant names got scrambled en route to the New World I wouldn't place too much faith in this.

Della has nothing to do with rank; quite the contrary. The surname of New York ad man Jerry Della Femina means "of the woman"; this can mean the original Della Femina was illegitimate, though not necessarily.

The rarely seen prefix degli, as in degli Alberti, is one of the few semireliable indications that an Italian family was once part of the gentry, if not the nobility. Degli Alberti means "of the Alberts," and was used in central and northern Italy to mean a family that had become sufficiently grand to refer to itself in the plural.

The situation is clearer with German names. The prefix von means "of" and was originally appended to all sorts of names, most of them pretty humble; but at some point over the centuries von came to mean that the family had been ennobled--or at least they'd like you to think so. For example, the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, from the West German city of Aachen, was originally Ludwig Mies; he added the rest (Rohe was his mom's maiden name) to give himself a little more status when pitching impressionable clients. Quoth a biographer: "He would not have dared to assume a designation of real German nobility, like 'von,' but 'van der' was permissible; it sounded faintly elegant to the German ear though it was common enough to the Dutch."

Some folks, happily, are above all this faux nobility jive. The writer Sanche de Gramont came from a noble French family but on moving to the United States changed his name to Ted Morgan, an anagram of his old last name, to celebrate his embrace of democracy. I trust you'll take his example to heart.

THE ROMAN NUMERAL DILEMMA

Regarding your column on how to write 1990 in Roman numerals [February 23], I had to learn about these things when I was in Catholic grade school in the 1920s. We were taught the less letters the better, because the Romans hammered or carved them into stone and wanted to save themselves work. So I'd say 1990 should be written MXM, not the MCMXC your computer gave you. There were dummies in those days too, hence the variations you cited. --Old-Timer, Chicago

Just to continue the investigation of what word processor algorithms do with Roman numerals, I put Microsoft Word to the test:

1990: MCMXC, as with Ventura

1999: MCMXCIX rather than Ventura's MIM--clumsy but methodical

9999 and other big numbers: interestingly, it substitutes a question mark for the hypothetical 5,000 and 10,000 symbols. Clever, no? --Peter Norton (yes, that Peter Norton), Santa Monica, California

You guys prove my point--there is no universally accepted method for writing Roman numerals. Judging from the last couple TV shows I've seen, the broadcast industry has settled on the conservative MCMXC for 1990, but what the hell, some fearless iconoclast may yet go for broke with MXM.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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