A Foreigner’s Guide to Polish Names
What's in a Polish name? Why did the Slavic names of yore almost die out? And what are Polish names like nowadays?
An article on Polish first names follows below, if you are interested in Polish last names go here
Like the land’s borders, naming trends in Poland have changed back and forth along the course of history. Poles are the modern day descendants of Western Slavic tribes; the original Polish names were Slavic names. These were dithematic names – names built with two lexemes like -sław, or -mir (compare: Sławomir). Legend has it that their bearer was meant to fulfil the prophecy of their meaning…
However, after the Council of Trent (1545-1563) imposed a ban on pagan names, the majority of these original Slavic forenames became extremely rare or extinct. Only a handful of the original Slavic names remained in use, mainly Kazimierz, Stanisław and Wojciech (the names of Slavic saints).
Some Slavic names were also resurrected much later, in the 19th century, when Poland was wiped off the map and redistributed to more powerful neighbours. As a manifestation of patriotic spirit, Poles decided to revive ancient Slavic names – and even made up a few (See Lechosław below).
In order to get a bird’s eye view of Polish naming customs, here is a description of those Slavic names, followed by an overview of the foreign given names that made their way into Polish culture, as well as an survey of how these current trends are developing.
Some Slavic names still in use today, like Sławomir, Mirosław, Bronisław or Kazimierz, signify heroic ideals – they combine lexemes like sław (fame), mir (peace/respect), bron- (defend), and kazi- (destroy).
Other popular Slavic names, like Bogumił or Bogdan, contain the root 'bóg/bog' (God) and are considered theophoric names – similar naming practices are found in virtually every language.
Still, a large number of Slavic names perished for good along the road to Christianization. Names like Mściwoj, Świętobor, Racimir, Chwalimir, Trzebiesław are more likely to be encountered in literature and history textbooks than on the street nowadays.
Here is a cross section of the Polish Slavic names still in use today, along with their meaning. Notate bene, in Polish masculine names end with a consonant whereas feminine names end with the letter 'a'.
- Bogdan – 'God-given'; a popular name in Poland but also Ukraine (Bohdan), this is the only Polish name with the 'dan' suffix, which makes linguists suspect a borrowing from the Scythes, who used the name Bagadata with the same 'God-given' meaning.
- Bożydar – 'gift from God'; rare but still used; it is a translation of its Greek and Latin equivalents Theodor and Theodatus.
- Bożena – yet another name built with the Slavic root meaning God; this old Slavic name was known in the Czech Kingdom since the 12th century, but became popular in Poland during the 19th century.
- Bogumił – means 'someone who is dear [miły] to God', and is sometimes considered a calque from the Greek Theophilos.
- Bogusław – a theophoric name possibly meaning 'to praise God'; known in all Slavic languages, popular since the Middle Ages. In Poland the name peaked in popularity during the 1950s and 1960s. See Polish composer Bogusław Schaeffer
- Bolesław – the root bole- comes from bolye and means much, a lot, or more; thus the name can be translated as 'he who will have a lot of fame'; initially used by the dukes of the Piast dynasty. Its popularity has been waning since the 1920s. See 19th century realist writer Bolesław Prus or 20th century poet Bolesław Leśmian.
- Bronisław – another name with the sław- root; bronić means to defend – the whole can be translated as 'he who will defend his fame'.
- Czesław – the cze- in Czesław comes from the verb czcić – to worship. The whole name can be translated as one who 'will worship or respect the good name[fame] (of the house)'. The name was popular until 1950s – not so much these days. Czesław Miłosz is one of its best known bearers.
- Jarosław – jary - as an adjective meant vigorous and powerful; the name thus can be reconstructed to mean 'he who has strong fame'. The name has been popular in Poland only since the 19th century Slavic name revival. It was very popular in the 1960s and 1970s. Other Slavic (but not Polish) variants with the jar- lexeme include Jaromir. See Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz.
- Kazimierz – combines the root mir (peace/respect), and kazić – to destroy: 'he who destroys peace'. The name of many kings and dukes from the Piast and Jagiellonian dynasties, like Casimir I the Restorer or Casimir III the Great. Saint Casimir (1458 –1484), crown prince of the Jagiellonian dynasty, became the patron saint of Lithuania and Poland. Casimir is one of the only Polish names to have become popular outside Poland. In the end of the 18th century it was taken to America by Kazimierz (Casimir) Pulaski. French 19th century violist Casimir Ney and Polish-Russian 20th century painter Kazimir Malevitch are also examples of this trend. See film director Kazimierz Kutz
- Lech – one of the rare single-lexeme Slavic names in Polish; according to legend, the brothers Lech, Czech and Rus are the founding fathers of the Polish, Czech and Russian people respectively. Lech is a typically Polish name that remains very popular. Its etymology is uncertain – most hypotheses lead to lścić – to act deceitfully); Lech could be a diminutive from Lścisław. See Why Poles are named one thing and called another
- Lechosław – a name created in 19th century, as part of the trend to revive ancient Slavic names
- Lesław – this name was very likely introduced by the late Romantic poet Roman Zmorski (1824-67). It was especially popular in the 1950s.
- Leszek – in all likeliness a hypocoristic version of Lestek, which comes from Lech
- Ludomir – 'he who secures peace for people', from the root lud- which means people.
- Marzanna – while the name is not popular at the moment, it goes back to Slavic antiquity. Marzanna was a Slavic deity, and she is still present in Polish folklore. An effigy of the godess is burnt on the first day of Spring.
- Mieczysław – the older form was probably Miecisław, which comes from mietać – 'to throw'; and sław-root. Learn more about composer Mieczysław Karłowicz
- Mieszko – the name of the first historical ruler of Poland; definitely rare but still surfaces as a given name; it is likely that it was originally a diminutive derived Miecisław (see above)
- Mirosław – like Sławomir, it combines (in reversed sequence) the two most productive lexemes of Polish Slavic names; it can be reconstructed as meaning 'he who praises peace' or 'he who gains fame by establishing order or peace'. It is considered one of the oldest Polish names.
- Przemysław – may look like yet another -sław name, but it is not. In fact Przemysław goes back to Przemysł, incorporating the root mysł – 'thought'; the -aw ending was supposedly added by assimilation; prze- probably means przez (through). May refer to someone thoughtful.
- Radosław – combines the root rado- happy, satisfied, and sław.
- Radzimir – the root radzi- goes back to raci- which means fight; someone eager to fight; Definitely not a popular name but... See rising star Radzimir Dębski (known also as Jimek)
- Sławomir – a variant of Mirosław; the name disappeared in the 16th century to reappear in the 19th century. See Sławomir Mrożek
- Stanisław – the stan- root means 'stand' or 'become', it may express a wish for fame; one of the most popular Polish names; recorded in the early 13th century as Stanislaus – a form which has made it to Western Europe, where it gained some popularity. It has been used in France as Stanislas, which is likely to go back to the Polish king Stanislas Leszczyński (who resided in Nancy). Stanisław, which is the name of the Polish saint, is also known in Catholic countries – a 19th century leader of Native American Yokut tribe of Northern California who was called Estanislao. Stanislaus, along with other Polish names, gained some popularity in 19th century Ireland. This was a time when both Catholic countries faced a bleak political situation. Giving a Polish name was seen as a sign of sympathy with the Polish nation suffering under imperial rule. Another factor may have beens a strong Jesuit tradition in some Irish Catholic families - James Joyce's brother's name was Stanislaus. See Stanisław Lem
- Tomisław - a Slavic name,more popular in the Balkans (Tomislav) than in Poland; the etymology links the tomi in Tomisław with the Old Slavic verb tomiti – 'torment, harass'; the whole name could be translated as 'he who is tormented by the need to be famous'
- Wanda – a name very likely coined by Medieval historian Wincenty Kadłubek; one of the rare Polish names to be used outside of Poland.
- Wacław - according to linguists, Wacław goes back to Więcław which is a diminutive of Więcesław (the Russian equivalent is Vyacheslav). With więce- meaning 'more' – semantically this is basically another variant of Bolesław (see); in the first half of the 20th century it was very popular – but its popularity has been waning ever since the 1920s.
- Wieńczysław – may look like an old name, but in fact Wieńczysław first appeared at the beginning of the 18th century; wieńczyć- means to crown, therefore 'he who should be crowned with fame.'
- Wiesław – known since the 14th century – it could be a short form of Wielisław (wieli- means 'a lot'), another name meaning someone who should be more famous... (comp. Bolesław and Wacław)
- Wisława – Wisława is probably derived from Witosława, a 12th century name. It is not very popular today but Wisława Szymborska definitely immortalised the name.
- Władysław – came to Polish through Czech (the Polish equivalent would be Włodzisław); The wład- / władz- root means to wield power, to rule. Fittingly, it has been the name of many kings in Central Europe starting with Ladislaus I of Hungary (Saint Ladislaus), Władysław Jagiello, Władysław IV Waza; it was extremely popular early in the 19th century . See Polish avant-garde painter Władysław Strzemiński...
- Włodzimierz – formerly used as a polonized version of the Russian name Vladimir – Lenin is known as Włodzimierz in Polish, whereas Putin goes by Władimir – it was popular in eastern Poland during the 19th century and gradually reached the entire country during the 20th.
- Wojciech – this ancient name combines woj - , warrior, and ciech- from cieszyć się, to be happy, to rejoice; one who rejoices in battle. The name of a martyr and first Saint and patron of the Polish Catholic Church (known in English as Saint Adalbert of Prague, although the name Adalbert has no etymological connection). One of the oldest and most popular Polish names of all time. See Polish director Wojciech Jerzy Has
- Zbigniew – the name is derived from the root zby- (to rid, get rid of) and -gniew (anger) and could be interpreted as someone who is rid of anger, which in this understanding has more of a Buddhist than Slavic taste. Found in written sources as early as the 11th century (as Zbygniew); there are other names to with the same suffix, like Zbysław, Zbylut, Zbywoj, but they are definitely not popular these days. See Zbigniew Cybulski.
- Zdzisław – zdzie- in Zdzisław is supposedly derived from 'działać' (to act). The name was known as early as the 12th century but was forgotten in the next century; it returned in the 19th century. See Zdzisław Beksiński.
- Ziemowit – a distorted version of Siemowit made of Siemo- (Pre-Slavic*sěmьja which could mean family or house) and -wit (sir, lord). The meaning can be reconstructed as 'lord of the house'. Siemowit was a frequent name of the rulers of the Piast dynasty. Nowadays, the name is mostly associated with Ziemowit Szczerek, considered the Polish Hunter S. Thompson.
The polonized version of the most common Christian names (like Piotr, Łukasz, Andrzej, Grzegorz, Agnieszka, Małgorzata or Katarzyna, respectively Peter, Luke, Andrew, Gregory, Agnes, Margaret and Catherine) are fairly recognizable, although you might want to brush up on your Polish alphabet to make sure you pronounce them properly. Some of them, however, have a story of their own, and can be misleading:
- Jacek – this popular Polish name is by no means Jack, Jake or Jacob (Jacob = Jakub in Polish). It is a form of Hyacinthus.
- Jerzy – the quaint Polish equivalent of George.
- Maciej – some Christian names have two variants in Polish, forming pairs like Mateusz and Maciej – both derived from Mathaeus (Matthew); same goes for Bartłomiej and Bartosz which both go back to Bartholomaeus (Bartholemew), with the latter name in both pairs considered a more plebeian form.
- Mikołaj – the Polish equivalent of Nicholas is noticeable in that it starts with an M, a feature Polish shares with Czech (Mikoláš), Slovak (Mikuláš), Belarusian (Mikalai), Ukrainian (Микола - Mykola) – but also Hungarian (Miklós). Russian and most other languages retained the initial N (Nikolay), as in the original Greek Nikolaos.
- Tadeusz – One of the most typical (or even archetypical) Polish names has no Slavic roots whatsoever. Tadeusz arrived in Polish directly from Latin (Thadaeus) but its origins lie in Aramaic (תדי, Taddai / Aday may be translated as 'courageous heart') and Greek (Θαδδαῖος). Until the 19th century, this was not a particularly popular name in Poland, except for the northern-eastern areas of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth where the religious cult of Jude the Apostle (that is Jude Thaddeus) had been established for some time before. The name gained importance with the emergence of historical figures such as Tadeusz Kościuszko and Tadeusz Rejtan. Both were born east of the Commonwealth (contemporary Belarus) and both became exemplary of Polish patriotic spirit at the time of Poland's partitions. The name was then given (in memory of Kościuszko) by Adam Mickiewicz to the main hero of his epic poem Pan Tadeusz – which definitely contributed to the popularity of the name in Poland. By the end of 18th century the name had also traveled to America. Thaddeus Stevens, a key politician of the Civil War and Reconstruction Era, known for his unrelenting opposition to the slave system in America was also named after Kościuszko. The name can be found in Thomas Mann's novella Death in Venice, where Tadzio, a diminutive of Tadeusz , is the name of the handsome Polish boy around which the story revolves. The name has also made headlines when Alicja Bachleda-Curuś and Collin Farell named their son Henry Tadeusz. See also Tadeusz Różewicz or Tadeusz Borowski
- Wawrzyniec translates Latin Laurentius (English Lawrence)
Germanic and German names
Germanic or German names in Polish disguise include:
- Jadwiga – a polonized version of the German name Hedwig.
- Kinga – a short form of the old German name Kunegunda.
- Olga - this is an early an early Slavic borrowing of the original Germanic name Helga
- Waldemar – while this is obviously a Germanic name (waltan – wield power, rule, mar – great, famous), Waldemar is in some connection with Slavic name Vladimir (Polish Włodzimierz). Both names have the same meaning and are built of parts that are cognates. The name Waldemar appeared in Poland only in 19th century. One interesting hint at the possible Polish overtones of the name is offered by Edgar Allan Poe's short story entitled The Strange Case of M. Valdemar (though Valdemar is the protagonist's last name) wherein the protagonist translates Rabelais and Schiller into Polish.
- Zygmunt - Originally a German name. Sigmund or Sigismund is derived from the words sigu 'victory'+ munt 'hand, protection' - and can be translated as 'he whose protection grants victory'. The Polish version Zygmunt gained much popularity in Poland, being the name of several kings like Sigismund I the Old, Sigismund II Augustus, and Sigismund III Vasa, and remains popular (considerably more than its German equivalents). The forename of the famous psychiatrist Sigmund Freud was chosen by Freud's father Jacob, who was known for his Polish sympathies, as his ancestors had lived for centuries in the Polish Commonwealth, before the family moved to Galicia and eventually Vienna. He named his son after the eponymous Polish kings, known for their tolerance and protection over Jews.
Several popular Polish names have Lithuanian origins. This goes back to centuries of cultural exchange within the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
- Witold – Comes from Lithuanian Vytautas – can be translated as 'he who leads the people'; as a given name it appears in Poland only in 19th century. See: Witold Gombrowicz or Witold Lutosławski.
- Grażyna - this name, still relatively popular in Poland, was invented by Adam Mickiewicz in a 1823 poem, shaped from the Lithuanian adjective gražus - meaning beautiful). See Grażyna Bacewicz
- Although it is uncertain, Olgierd (Algierdas) and Danuta may have come from Lithuanian
All of this brings us to the thorny abundance of diminutives in Polish. People bearing the names discussed above are in fact called a variety of nicknames in daily life. Unless at school or in an official context, Poles tend to use diminutives at all time. For example, a woman named Katarzyna will be refered to as Kasia in almost every occasion.
With suffixes such as -ek, -uś, one name can have a whole array of informal versions. If a man is named Stanisław, his family, schoolmates and colleagues will call him Stach, Staś, Stasiek, or Staszek or even Stachu. If Stanisław has children, they may call him tata (dad), but they can also use the more affectionate diminutive of tatuś.
This goes for the majority of Polish names.
- Jan is Janek, Jasiek, Jaś, Jasiu;
- Józef is Józek, Józio, or Ziutek.
- Bolesław is Bolek and Mirosław is Mirek,
- Radosław is Radek, and Jarosław is, self-evidently, Jarek.
- Krzysztof is Krzysiek or Krzyś.
- Wojciech is usually Wojtek in everyday life
- Eugeniusz/Eugenia is Gieniek/Gienia;
- Grzegorz is Grzesiek or Grześ;
- Jakub is Kuba, sometimes Kubuś.
The same goes for girls' names:
- Barbara is Basia or Baśka,
- Katarzyna is Kasia/Kaśka,
- Joanna is Aśka or Asia, or Joaśka
- Alicja is Ala,
- Elżbieta is Ela, Elka
- Urszula is Ula, Ulka,
- Jadwiga can be Iga or Jadzia,
- and Małgorzata can be either Małgośka or Gośka or Gosia or Małgosia.
- Antonina - can be called Tońka, Tonia, Tońcia and sometimes Nina.
Some of those may be slightly confusing. Ola is a short version of Aleksandra, and Aga can refer both to Agnieszka and Agata. Some more surprising diminutives would include Lolek, a diminutive for Karol which is ironically just as long as the original name.
Beware, however, that some first names tend to be left unchanged. For example, if you know a Paweł, a Szymon a Mikołaj or a Marta, you can safely call them by their given names without sounding overly formal.
Out of etymological curiosity, this article features several names that are no longer used nowadays, but what are modern Poles most likely to be called? Here's the top 10 list for 2014 (the number in brackets is the number of children who were given the name during that year):
1. Lena - 9642
2. Zuzanna - 8856
3. Julia - 8572
4. Maja - 8055
5. Zofia - 6733
6. Hanna - 6407
7. Aleksandra - 5935
8. Amelia – 5586
9. Natalia - 5.205
10. Wiktoria - 5.149
1. Jakub - 9382
2. Kacper - 7232
3. Antoni - 7143
4. Filip - 6903
5. Jan - 6817
6. Szymon - 6112
7. Franciszek - 5139
8. Michał - 5004
9. Wojciech - 4.959
10. Aleksander - 4.896
The list clearly demonstrates that typical Slavic names are far from popular currently, with only Wojciech making it into the top 10. Otherwise, the list is full of names of Christian origin (of Latin, Greek, Hebrew or Aramaic derivation), and all of them have obvious counterparts in English.
On the girls' list, the first 'local' name is encountered at number 31 (Jagoda); Kinga, which isn't originally Slavic but can be considered a typically Polish name, comes in at 35, Olga at 56, and Kalina at 57.
The boys' list, apart from Wojciech stealing the 9th spot, features Stanisław at 20, Miłosz at 21, Przemysław 62, and Radosław at 64. It seems that Slavic names are not en vogue right now, but this – as all that is fashion – can change at the drop of a hat.
Author: Mikołaj Gliński, August 26,,2015