Everybody 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/
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