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Slovak Surnames: What They Can Tell a Family Historian
After settling in America, immigrants from Slovakia, regardless of their ethnic, social, and cultural background, usually modified or changed their names. That's why contemporary surnames of Slovak-Americans differ from those of their Slovak relatives, which both differ from what it was historically.
In the absence of a consistent system, names in Slovakia (similar to other European countries) were not stable for many centuries. Medieval people or even those of the 18th century, were not forced to use one official, very individual, and hereditary surname. It was enough if one could be more or less precisely distinguished by the society. Everyone had a given name, usually a Christian name. This was used during the course of his life in various forms.
For example, George could be used in Latin forms Georgius or Georg, in Hungarian György, in Slovak forms Juraj Ďord' Juro Jurko Ďuro Dzuro Ďurko.
The first name was further supplemented with different characteristics:
- father's, mother's, or family name:Bl'''aško derived from Blasius or Blazej; Matuška derived from Matus or Mathias; Tomašikoviech from Tomáš or Thomas.
- occupation: Kolár - Wheeler, Schmidt - Smith.
- place of origin: Ocovská - a native of Očova, Turčan - a citizen of the Turiec region, Horváth - Croat.
- nicknames, etc.
Our forefathers can have a variety of different names, depending on the nationality, mother tongue, language used, education, and other personal abilities of a writer (clerk, priest).
Such patterns lasted till the end of the 18th century, when under the reign of Joseph II, surnames became hereditary by law. In spite of that, various forms of one person's name appeared even at the beginning of our century. By the way, the unofficial, so-called "living" names are still used in Slovakia. Especially in the countryside, persons are distinguished by them in everyday conversation.
Development of Slovak Historical Surnames
It is generally known that people were originally distinguished by just one name. The first hereditary names, surnames, from Slovakia were recorded just in the 13th century. The oldest ones were created among nobility, later among town dwellers, but very soon we can find them also among country folk, the largest group of Hungarian society. They appeared first in the south and southeastern areas, from where they spread to other parts of the country. In the 15th-16th centuries, last names were in general use.
Slovakian surnames were influenced by the contacts with surrounding ethnic groups or emerging nations and by great migration. In the 13th-14th centuries, large groups of Germans settled in several regions of Slovakia, and they brought their own surnames to their new homeland. Further changes and imports of surnames accompanied the Valachian colonization (14th-15th centuries), Serbian and Croatian immigration (16th-17th centuries), and various Slovak migrations
The names of all these people were changing according to social, ethnic, historical, and political conditions. The name of each family developed in its own way. Many descendants of German families have preserved their original German names. In rare cases, we are able to define locality, period, and special circumstances of their creation from the names themselves. In the majority of cases, however, we can do this only approximately. Let's mention just several characteristics that will enable us to do the basic classification of Slovakian surnames.
There is just one group of surnames that often strictly reflects the ethnic background of the family ancestor: surnames derived from ethnic names Slovák, Tóth, Nemec, Polák, Rusnák, Chorvát, Horváth, etc. They tell us very clearly that the bearer of such a name settled individually in a community of different ethnicity. According to the language of this name, we can also guess the nationality of his neighbors (for example, Tóth could be a Slovak settled among Hungarians, because Tóth is a Hungarian word for a Slovak).
In some cases, we are even able to guess the period of such a surname creation and thus also the period of the ancestor's settling in Upper Hungary. For example, the surnames designating Croats (Horváth, Chorváth), very often appeared in the 16th and 17th centuries, during the mass immigration of Croats into the northern parts of Hungary.
A large group of surnames has been derived from first names (of men, less often of women). As an example, we can mention the common names
- Jančo, Janoška from Ján - John
- Štefanec from Štefan - Stephen
- Michalko from Michal - Michael
- Ďuriška from Juraj - George
- Balaša from Baláš - Blasius, the names of the old noble families
- Detrich, Meško, derived from old first names almost unused today
In Slovakia, surnames derived from localities are very frequent. The oldest ones were created among the nobility. Such names as Kubíni, Ostrolúcky, Sentiváni, Divéky were usually derived from small localities. Surnames such as Sučansky, Trenčiansky, Lipták refer to the local or territorial origin of the ancestor as well as to his migration from the particular locality or area; Sučansky from Suča or Sučany, Trenčiansky from Trenčin or the county of Trenčin, Lipták from the region of Liptov.
A further large group consists of surnames derived from occupations Kováč, Mlynár, Minárik, Švec, Szabó, Schmidt etc. They usually appeared in later centuries and reflect the family ancestor's occupation.
There are also other groups of surnames reflecting an ancestor's nature, mental or physical qualities, etc. And finally, there is a large group of surnames for which the origin or contents remains and will remain without clear explanation.
This is the extract of a lecture Slovak Surnames: What They Can Tell a Family Historian by Milan Šišmiš, presented at the FEEFHS Convention, Minneapolis in 1996. To read the article in its entirety see FEEFHS Journal 4:4 (March 1997).
Male Given Names
Andrej (or Ondrej)
Female Given Names