In grade school I always enjoyed the day that came every year when our teachers would ask what our mothers’ maiden names were. My mother’s maiden surname – Niedziałkowski – always got everyone’s attention because it was so unusual. My own surname – Dańko – hardly raised an eyebrow.
Not until I began studying my family history in the late 1990s did I begin to realize that those names might have some meaning behind them. After all, a name is a name right? Fairly soon after I started researching my ancestry seriously, the second edition of Fred Hoffman’s book on Polish surnames was published, and boy, was this a godsend!
Categories of Polish Surnames
In his book on Polish surnames, Fred Hoffman divides and discusses the surnames according to five general categories:
- Personal Names and Coats of Arms
- Toponyms (Place Names)
- Features or Objects (including verbs, animals, trees, plants, food, drink)
- Foreign Names
Polish Surnames in My Family Tree
The surnames in my family tree span all of these five groups. Here is a list of some of them with their origins and meanings:
Bal: bal- “to tell tales”, first name Baltazar, Hungarian personal name Bal
Bonislawski: village Bonisław, altered name Będzisław
Chmielewski: chmiel “hops”
Chotkowski: place names Chotków, Chotkowo
Chruścicki: chrust “dry twigs”
Dańko: dan- “given” or name element from Daniel
Dymek: dym “smoke” or name element from Dymitr
Dziura / Dziurzyński: dziura “hole”
Głowacz: głowa “head”
Goliński: goły “bare, naked”, golić “to shave”, or place name Golina
Grabowski: grab “hornbeam”, grabić “to rob”, grabie “rake”, old first name Grab, or toponym
Iwaniec: Ukrainian name Ivan = Polish name Jan (John)
Izbicki: izba “hut, chamber”
Jach: name element from Jan, Jakub, Jachym, etc.
Jara: jar- “sharp, strict”, jary “of the spring, robust, young”
Jedliński: jodła “fir tree”
Kolarowira: kolarz “wheelwright”
Malon: mały “small”, or a name root as in Małomir, also popular in toponyms
Marcinkiewicz: first name Marcin from the Latin Martinus (of or relating to Mars)
Markiewicz: first name Marek from the Latin Marcus (Mark)
Milewski: ancient names Miłobor, Miłosław with the root miły “dear, beloved”
Mossakowski: name Mojsław or Mojżesz (Moses)
Muszynski: mucha “housefly”
Niedziałkowski: nie działać “to do nothing”, niedziela “Sunday” (day of doing nothing)
Nosarzewski: nos “nose”
Panowski: pan “master, bridegroom”, names Pankracy, Pantelejmon, Opanas
Pomaski: village of Pomaski
Pszczółkowski: pszczoła “bee”
Ranow: rana “wound”, rano “early”, or name Ranimir
Skowroński: skowronek “lark’ (a kind of bird)
Ślimak: ślimak “snail, slug” or “slow fellow”
Sowa: sowa “owl”
Szymański: name Szymon (Simon) (Hebrew), meaning “Hear my affliction”
Tropiło / Trupiło: trop “trace, trail, scent”, tropić “to track”
Wojnowski: wojna “war, struggle”
Zygmuntowicz: name Zygmunt, Germanic *sigis “victory” + *mundo “protect, guard”
SOURCE: Hoffman, William F. 1998. Polish surnames: origins and meanings. Chicago: Polish Genealogical Society of America.
Evolution of Polish Surnames
I am often amazed at the number of different surnames used in Poland. Because fixed surnames are a rather recent phenomenon in Poland (and elsewhere), most not being fixed until the 18th century, many surnames have developed through something of a divergent evolution, where a surname such as Markowicz might diverge into Markowicz and Markiewicz over time.
In fact, in addition to Markowicz and Markiewicz, a large number of names derive from the given name Marek and the numbers of individuals with these surnames in Poland in 1990 varied greatly, with only 1 person using the surname Marec, but with 16,202 people using the surname Marek. And, of course, not all the people in Poland with the same or similar surnames are related to each other. Many surnames arose independently all over Poland, resulting in a convergent evolution of surnames.
Many of these Polish surnames present some difficulty for native speakers of English. I’m often asked “How is that name pronounced?” The short answer a native speaker of Polish would give is “Just the way it’s spelled”, but that’s little comfort to most people. My mother’s maiden name, Niedziałkowski, is mispronounced by nearly all native speakers of English.
These difficulties of pronouncing the surname Niedziałkowski has led to a divergent evolution of the surname among my relatives in the United States, resulting in the surnames Niedzialkowski, Niedzialkoski, Niedzial, and even Newman, all in one family line.
My own mother, while in her teens, briefly changed her surname to Nigel.
But that’s another story.
Copyright © 2007 Stephen J. Danko