What Does my Polish Name Mean?

Polish flagEverybody recognizes a Polish last name (surname). In fact, if it looks unpronounceable, it’s probably Polish. Kowalski, Młynarski, Brzęczyszczykiewicz…maybe yours is even crazier.

Much has been written about Polish last names, and I don’t pretend to be an expert. I did want to distill some of the information out there, though, in case you don’t have time to read pages upon pages of resources.

So, what does YOUR Polish name mean? Keep reading to get a better idea.

Polish first names

When it comes to Polish first names, most are chosen after either a Catholic Saint or a traditional Slavic hero or figure. This makes sense, since Poland is still a predominantly Catholic country and proud of its Slavic past.

Some examples include:

  • Stanisław (Stanek, Staszek), after Saint Stanisław
  • Wojciech (Wojtek), after Saint Adalbert, one of Poland’s patron Saints
  • Bolesław (Bolek), after King Boleslaw (966 – 1025), one of Poland’s greatest kings.
  • Wladysław (Władek), after King Władislaw Jagiełło (1351–1434), another great Polish king.

Another aspect worth mentioning when it comes to Polish first names is how they denote gender. Polish female names almost always end in “a” (i.e. Katarzyna, Małgosia, Anna). Sometimes, you can feminize a Polish male name simply by adding an “a.” For example, Stanisław can become Stanisława.

Male names basically end in a consonant or any letter other than “a” (i.e. Janek, Marcin, Ołgierd).

Polish last names

In explaining Polish last names, let’s start with the most common ones most people recognize: names ending in “ski.” The suffix “ski” essentially means “from.” When combined with the prefix of a location, it creates a last name denoting where you are from. Note that the female form of “ski” is “ska.”

For example, suppose your family originated from Krakow. Your last name might then be “Krakowski.” Someone from Tarnow might have a last name of “Tarnowski.”

Originally, during the high middle ages, the suffix “ski” was used exclusively by nobles. Since nobles were recognized by their land or territory, that’s how they referred to themselves. Going back to the Tarnow example, a nobleman, Jan from Tarnow, would be Jan Tarnowski. His wife might be called Anna Tarnowska. These are called toponymic surnames, named after topography, or location.

But wait, what if your last name has the “ski,” but the prefix is not a location. One of the most common Polish last names is Kowalski, and, although there is a town called Kowal in Poland, it doesn’t explain why so many people have that last name.

That’s because, in the nineteenth century, peasants began taking on last names ending in “ski” as well. Except, they couldn’t use a location because most didn’t own any land. Instead, they used either cognominal surnames or patronymic surnames.

Cognominal Surnames: A cognominal surname is one taken after your occupation, personality, or even physique. For example, the “Kowal” in Kowalski” means blacksmith in Polish (English names often work the same way. Think John Smith). The “Piekar” in Piekarski refers to the Polish word for baker, or “piekarz.” These two surnames would mean “of the blacksmith” and “of the baker” respectively, because, remember, the “ski” means you are from or “of” something.

What about an example of a surname referencing a personality trait? Try the surname “Lisowski.” The prefix “lis” is the Polish word for fox. So the name means “of/from the fox,” which probably meant the family was known for being cunning and wise, perhaps in business.

We will get to patronymic surnames momentarily, but this wraps up the discussion of “ski.” Something fun you can do to figure out what your “ski” surname means is to look at the prefix and use a Polish translator. Is the prefix a Polish town or location? Then you might be a noble. Is it an occupation or character trait? Then you probably have peasant origins. It’s not always super easy, and there’s always exceptions, but these rules of thumb should help guide you.

Patrynomic Surnames: Patrynomic surnames refer to those deriving from a person’s name or family relations. Sometimes, these surnames are used with the suffix “owicz,” “ewicz,” “czyk” or some other combination. These suffixes translate to “son of.” An example is Łukaszewicz, meaning “son of Łukasz (Luke).

Other examples of patrynomic Polish surnames are “Adamczyk” (son of Adam), and “Kowalewicz” (son of the smith). Notice, in the last example, a family name is substituted with an occupation. It can get pretty complex.

The takeaway: if you have a surname with one of these suffixes, look at the prefix. Is the prefix another name or an occupation? It probably translates to “son (or daughter) of.”

Other Surnames: Unfortunately, I can’t cover every possible type of Polish last name in this article, but I will provide additional resources for you at the end. It is worth mentioning a couple more, however.

The most common Polish surname is Nowak, which derives from the Polish word for new, or “nowy/nowa.” Therefore, Nowak means, “the new one,” and may refer to someone who was a pioneer in a particular town or region.

Sometimes, Polish surnames have so-called diminutive suffixes, which I like to think of as cute, pet names. Consider the English “Bobby” instead of “Bob.” Oftentimes, these surnames end in “yk” or “iak.” An example would be “Szymoniak,” or “little Szymon.”

Where do I go from here?

The above are just some general rules. As with any language, there are exceptions and intricacies that only a professional linguist will be able to distinguish. If you are interested in further reading, check out the links below:

For meanings of several specific Polish last names, visit http://surnames.behindthename.com/names/usage/polish

For more detail on Polish surname suffixes, visit http://www.polishroots.org/Research/SurnameSearch/Surnamesendings/tabid/118/Default.aspx

To geographically search for the frequency of a Polish surname in a particular part of Poland, visit http://www.moikrewni.pl/mapa/

Questions/Comments? Write to me below!


Say What? How to Pronounce those Polish Letters

The Polish Alphabet
The Polish alphabet, with some extra crazy letters.

If you have no knowledge of the Polish language and want to learn it, no one will blame you for wanting to give up approximately 10 minutes after checking out the grammar and pronunciation.

Polish is tough. Many learners agree that it’s one of the harder languages to learn if your native tongue is English. The good news is that the alphabet is the same…sort of. There’s a few extra letters in the Polish alphabet that are not in English. You might come across these from time to time in a Polish last name, recipe or city.

Although I’m not qualified to teach you the entire Polish language, I can help you understand how to pronounce these letters so you’re more familiar when you encounter words that contain them. Below are explanations of the sounds, followed by an audio file. I do my best—I’m still an American.

Ą (ą)

First up, the “A” with the little tail thing (I’m sure there’s a fancy name for it). When you see this in a word, DO NOT pronounce it like the letter “a.” Rather, it has a nasally “own” sound. Sounds kind of French.

Ć (ć)

Cha, cha cha. The letter “Ć” has a “ch” sound, as in “church” or “choo choo.” There’s a little more to it, though. Check out the audio.

Ę (ę)

Here’s the “E” with the little tail thing. It has an “en” sound, like in “ten” or “hen,” but there’s a nasal accent. Listen to the recording to hear it for yourself.

Ł (ł)

Get ready for this. No, the letter “Ł” does not sound ANYTHING like the letter “L.” Instead, it has a “W” sound. Polish logic, right? So basically pronounce it like you would the English “W,” such as in “whale” or “win.”

Ń (ń)

The nearest English equivalent to the Polish letter “Ń” is the “ny” sound in the word “canyon.”

Ó (ó)

This one is easy. Pronounce “Ó” like “oo,” such as in “cool” or “tool.”

Ś (ś)

The Polish letter “Ś” generally sounds like “shh.” Again, this is one you will want to hear because there’s a little twist.

Ź (ź)

For me, the variations of the Polish letter “Z’s” are the hardest to pronounce because it’s hard to find an English equivalent. For the letter “Ź,” the nearest equivalent I found was the “si” sound in “Hoosier.”

Ż (ż)

Again, it’s hard to find an English equivalent to teach the sound of the letter “Ż.” It sounds close to the “si” sound in the word “allusion.” You might be struggling to notice the difference between this and the last one. Check out the recording.


I hope that helped you, even a little bit. I think even knowing that “Ł” sounds like “W” is important. Imagine the difference that can make in a word.