Annals of Onomatology
Origin of The Italian Given Name Cabiria
Cabiria is best known to English speakers in the title of Federico Fellini’s 1957 film The Nights of Cabiria (Italian: Le notti di Cabiria) starring his wife Giulietta Masina as a prostitute, a petite wandering waif traipsing through the streets of Rome seeking true love and finding only abuse and disappointment.
The American Broadway musical and movie Sweet Charity is based on Fellini's screenplay of “The Nights of Cabiria.” But the raucous, outer-space-queen, garish blatmouthedness of Shirley MacLean bears no comparison with the delicate screen artistry of Giulietta Masina.
Fellini snaps a production still of Masina on a 1954 set of “La Strada.”
Although I cannot name chapter and verse, I believe that in some print interview Fellini said he got the unusual feminine given name from the title character in a famous silent movie made in Italy in 1914 entitled “Cabiria.” Anyone studying Italian cinema seriously makes sure to watch this film, since Cabiria stands out in excellence from the mediocre shlock Italy usually produced early in its movie history, tedious orgy tales of ancient Roman decadence, spindly chariot races, creeping-looking Ulysses sword-fighting with papier-mâché monsters.
But Cabiria as a word is perhaps 3,000 years old. 2,000 years ago or more, the word arrived in ancient Italy from a Greek mystery cult centered around subterranean earth deities with the non-Greek name Κάβειροι ‘the Kabeiroi’ (probable Semitic meaning: ‘the mighty ones’).
From the isle of Samothrace , this worship of Vulcan-like forces of the ocean spread rapidly during the Hellenistic Age, to be introduced eventually by Greek slaves into southern Italy. The Cabiri were represented as an old man and his son whose chief divine function was the protection of sailors. Cabiria might easily have been a name given to a daughter by a father who worshipped the Cabiri.
But there is no root in Greek or Latin for this word, while there is a most probable one in the Semitic languages of the ancient Middle East.
Probable Semitic Roots of The Name
In Hebrew כביר kabir root: k-b-r) and in Arabic kabir or kebir mean ‘big, great, large.’
The word is common in the Old Testament, for example in The Book of Job 36:5 הן אל כביר ולא ימאס כביר כח לב׃ “Behold, God is mighty, and despiseth not any: he is mighty in strength and wisdom.”
In Arabic, al-bait al kabir means "the big house" and al bait kabir means "the house is big."
In the very well-known Islamic pious phrase الله أكبر Allahu Akbar! ‘God is greater [or greatest],’ one sees akbar, the comparative or superlative form of the Arabic adjective kabir ‘great.’ This common phrase of praise is said aloud upon fortunate occasions: upon receiving a blessing from Allah, upon hearing good news, upon escaping from danger or achieving victory in a battle, upon business success, upon hearing of a relative giving birth, upon learning that a loved one has had successful surgery, etc.
So, in a quaint and lovely Italian rural name, there echo magmatic and chthonic sonorities orotund as unguent lava, deep-voiced as sea swell whose waves hide deities old as the shores of Samothrace.
copyright © 2012 William Gordon Casselman
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