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Understanding surnames and given names can help you find and identify ancestors in records.
Before record keeping began, most people had only one name, such as John. As the population increased, it became necessary to distinguish between individuals with the same name. The problem was usually solved by adding descriptive information.
John became John the smith, John the son of Matthew, John the short, or John from Breslau. At first “surnames” applied only to one person and not to the whole family. After a few generations, these names became hereditary and were used from father to son.
Polish surnames developed from four major sources:
- Occupational, based on the person’s trade, such as Kowalski (Smith)
- Descriptive or Nickname, based on a unique quality of the person, such as Młody (Young)
- Geographical, based on a person’s residence, such as Podleski (Underwood)
- Patronymic, based on a person’s father’s given name, such as Janowicz (son of Jan)
Surnames were first used by the nobility and wealthy landowners. Later the custom was followed by merchants and townspeople and eventually by the rural population. This process took two or three centuries. In Poland the practice was well established by the 1500s. It is not possible to determine the exact year or even the century when a particular family name was taken.
Alias Surnames. In some areas of Poland people may have taken a second surname. In the records this may be preceded by the word alias, vulgo, vel, or genannt. This practice is rare and was done mainly because of property ownership. It can be found in certain parts of Silesia. A good article on this topic can be found at this link: http://www.pietrowicewielkie.net/index.php/spitznamen/51-einleitung-zu-qspitznamen-1939q . This article is written in German.
Jewish Naming Customs. Before 1808 the use of a family name by Jews was left to the discretion of the individual. Jews in Poland usually used only a given name and the name of their father, such as Isaac, son of Abraham. Most Jews did not adopt hereditary family names until required to do so by law. Jews in the Austrian territory of Galicia were required to adopt surnames in 1785. In 1808 Napoleon made a similar decree for all the Jews of his empire, including the Duchy of Warsaw. In 1844 Jews were again required to adopt surnames because of noncompliance.
Language Effects on Polish Names
Polish genealogical records may be in Polish, Latin, Russian, or German. Your ancestor’s name could be in Latin on his birth record, Polish on his marriage record, and German on his death record.
Surnames or given names are often very different when translated into different languages.
A book showing given names in 23 different European languages, including English, is:
Janowowa, Wanda, et al. Słownik imion.
Grammatical Effects on Polish Names
Polish grammar affects given names, surnames, and place-names. Surnames are affected by gender endings, such as the following example:
family name (masculine) = Grala
unmarried woman = Gralówna
a married woman = Gralowa
In the case of the family name of Kowalski, the male name would be written as Kowalski and the female as Kowalska. Although these endings can be confusing, it is important to note that these changes do not indicate different families.
The Polish language uses grammatical endings to indicate such things as possession, objects of a verb, or objects of a preposition. To one unfamiliar with Polish this could cause confusion. Always record names and places in their nominative case.
The following is an example of how case endings change surnames in a typical birth entry:
Jósef, syn Antona Grabowskiego i Anny z Nowaków Grabowskich w Warszawie
Jósef, son of Anton Grabowski and Anna (maiden name Nowak) Grabowska in Warszawa (Warsaw).
A good book about Polish surnames is:
Hoffman, William F. Polish Surnames: Origins and Meanings. Chicago, Illinois: Polish Genealogical Society of America, 1997. (FHL book 943.8 D46h.)
Most Polish given names are derived from biblical names, such as Józef (Joseph); from the names of saints, such as Jan (John); or from Old Slavic names, such as Władisław.
When baptized, children were usually given only one, or possibly two, given names. Some of these may be the names of parents or other relatives or possibly the names of the godparents.
In Poland the child was usually called by the name given at baptism. However, if the baptism record shows a Latin given name of Adalbertus, this is not what that child would be called. Rather, he would be called by the Polish version of his name, which would be Wojciech.
No particular naming pattern for given names was used in Poland as was common in other European countries. In Poland each day of the year is assigned a saint’s name and it is often noted in the church records that on that given day every girl and boy was named for that particular saint, making it appear that each parent had chosen the same name as everyone else for their child.
Some books are available that discuss names in Poland and their meanings. One book that provides meanings, variations, and dates when a particular given name was first recorded is:
Bubak, Józef,Księga naszych imion (Book of Given Names). Wrocław: Zakład Narodowy im, Ossoliński, 1993. (FHL book 943.8 D4b.)
http://www.moikrewni.pl/mapa/ Website which maps out locations of surnames in Poland
- This page was last modified on 27 January 2014, at 13:46.
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