At first glance, this seems both the perfect name for a son born on New Year’s Day and a bit too much. Okay, maybe much too much.

But it turns out that he has a surprising amount of history. Here’s our Name of the Day for 1/1/09: Primo.

In Latin, primus means first. Our words primal, primary and prime all trace back to the root.

Primus has been used as a given name since the first century or so. It could’ve been a name bestowed on a firstborn son; it might also be a nickname of sorts – the equivalent of calling someone “Junior” today.

What’s known is that a trio of early saints were called Primus:

  • In the 1st century, Saint Primus was martyred at Antioch, along with Saints Cyril and yes, Secundarius.
  • Under Diocletion, brothers Primus and Felician were said to have been martyred. They’re not widely known today, but the pair is depicted on the walls of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice;
  • In 362, Saint Primus met his death in northwest Africa. He and Saint Donatus were deacons defending a church during a theological debate when things turned violent.

The name remained in use, especially in Italy and again, sometimes as a nickname.

Primo Riccitelli was an early 20th century composer. His baptismal certificate gives his name as Pancrazio, but all of his works are credited to Primo. Two of his operatic pieces – I Compagnacci and Madonna Oretta – are still performed.

Primo Conti was an Italian artist, part of the Futurist movement, in the early 20th century.

But the best known Primo is Primo Levi, the Jewish-Italian Holocaust survivor. His memoir of his time in Auschwitz, If This is a Man, is widely considered a masterwork. After Levi’s death, his writings were adapted for the stage and eventually a 2005 film titled Primo.

On a lighter note, in the 1996 movie Big Night, brothers Primo and Secondo struggle to operate their restaurant. Big Night was a huge indie hit, attracting critical acclaim at film festivals and snagging an Independent Spirit award for the screenplay.

Considering his artistic and literary backstory and long history of use, Primo starts to sound a little more user friendly. Primo has never charted in the Top 1000 most popular names in the US, but plenty of men with the name appear in the census records. And of course, boys’ names ending in -o have become quite fashionable.

But not every -o ending name is equally accessible. Marco and Matteo are almost mainstream. Bruno, Giacomo and Cosmo are more extreme, but not unthinkable. Primo is probably somewhere between the second group and the really wild choices – like Romeo and Orlando.

Then again, last year Romeo ranked #505 and Orlando #368. So parents looking for an unusual Italian heritage choice for a firstborn might consider Primo.

Just don’t call your second born Secondo. That seems cruel.

About Abby Sandel

Whether you're naming a baby, or just all about names, you've come to the right place! Appellation Mountain is a haven for lovers of obscure gems and enduring classics alike.

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  1. Remus Edward Xavier, indeed you have it right!. he’s likely to be Remy & Rex in turns. On the plus side, I was watching Doctor Dolittle the other afternoon (and have “My Fair Lady” on queue for tonight along with “Hello Dolly”, for Barnaby)!

  2. I’m from a predominately Mexican area, and while I can’t remember ever actually hearing Primo, I could easily see it as a nickname there, but never a given name. Like, I have a cousin named Paul Alan Anthony David William Luke (no kidding!) who is only ever called Bubba. His brother’s name is similar (and also has Anthony in it!) and he goes by Pops. So anyway, I can certainly picture it as a family nickname, a cute one, at that! And I can maybe even see it traveling to an outside-the-family nickname, but I can’t imagine anyone actually naming their son Primo.

  3. I’m betraying my Italian roots, but I keep thinking that Primo is most common as a nickname. In families that follow the traditional naming patterns, there really can be six Anthonys and five Vincents. Inevitably, some of them get unusual nicknames that stick – I’ve got a Cousin Flash and an Uncle Biggie. Primo would be perfectly reasonable.

    But I think you’ve touched on it, JNE – there’s some ego involved in naming your kid “first.” That’s not to say it couldn’t come back. As Elisabeth writes, when compared to something like Pirate, Primo seems possible.

    Lola, I think Rex seems more wearable than Primo – but I’m still in love with Rex as a nickname for Remus Edward Xavier. Do I have that combo right?

    I remain astounded at how well Romeo and Orlando are doing these days!

  4. Funny, Elisabeth, I was thinking Primo would be the most awesome little brother of Rex! Primo appeals to me for the same reason Rex does, strong, simple & handome. Primo does feel a bit more cartoony to me but not so badly so. I think he’d be awesome paired with an Italian surname. A real stand-out choice! But i’d still rather Rex myself.

  5. I could see Primo entering mass consciousness on the child of a celebrity– from Cate Blanchett or Coolio.

    Urban, like Primo, is an ancient name that I could see taking the place of contemporary choices like Dakota, Pirate, and Rex.

    Great name of the day.

  6. Primo IS a little too adventurous for me, regardless of its history. While I can imagine a Quintus and an Octavio, I just can’t imagine a Primo (for some reason 5 and 8 work in Latin, but 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, and 9 just won’t work for me). If I came across a little Primo, I’d kind of wonder what was going through mommy’s and daddy’s heads when they named him, in all honesty (I wouldn’t say it to them, but I sure as heck would mention it to lots of friends after the fact for a bit of a giggle). For me, Primo is beyond any of the -o names mentioned – I’d rather Romeo, Bruno, Giacomo, Cosmo, Orlando, Marco or Matteo than Primo. Primo just says “ego” to me.