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A Foreigner’s Guide to Polish Surnames


Mikołaj Gliński
Illustration by Paweł Jońca
Illustration by Paweł Jońca

Meet the Kowalskis, Nowaks, Mickiewiczs and Lewandowskis – and find out out how these names came to be the most popular, symbolical, typical and strangest Polish surnames.

Every name – and surname in particular – has a story of its own. However, the naming system as a whole must also have its history, rules and particularities, which in the case of Polish surnames makes it a fascinating story of social, ethnic, and cultural intricacyFor the start, let's remember that most Polish surnames were originally formed as one of these three categories (however, as you will you see, with surnames nothing is simple):

Cognominal – created from a nickname, usually based on occupation (so-called occupational surnames), a physical description, or character trait. Compare Kowalski, Głowacz or Bystroń.

Toponymic – these names are derived from place of residence, birth or family origin. Like: Brzeziński.

Patronymic – usually derived from a person's given name and usually ends in a suffix suggesting a family relation. Think of: Piotrowicz or Staszczyk.

We'll use them to show you that a surname is a quite complicated thing. Where do we start? Of course with the most popular Polish name suffix – the -ski.

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The -ski names: Objet du désir that Became the Ultimate Polish Surname

The -ski names are by no means the oldest, but they've become by far the most recognizable type of Polish last name worldwide. It's also the most popular type of surname in the country today: structure-wise, surnames with the -ski suffix (and the cognate -cki and -dzki) comprise some 35% of the 1000 most popular Polish names. Where did this kind of name come from and what does it tell us about Poland?

The Polish -ski suffix was originally used to denote topographic location or possessive relation. Thus, the oldest of these names, which started to spread in Poland around the 13th century, signify that their bearers harked from a certain locale: Tarnowski is from Tarnów, Chomętowski from Chomątów, Brzeziński from Brzezie, etc.

Importantly, these were originally names used by Polish nobility – noblemen were obviously landowners and as such had all the right to use their land (and its name) as a way of distinguishing themselves from others (that's what surnames are all about, right?). As a result, -ski names very soon became to be considered a noble name par excellence, signifying the noble origins and high status of a family. In a strictly stratified Polish society in which members of the nobility made up around 10 percent of society, the -ski name became an understandable objet du désir.

Around the turn of 16th century, the -ski names staryed to be adopted by the bourgeoisie along with the peasants – we are in the midst of “-ski-mania”. That's when the suffix loses its original toponymic or possessive sense, and becomes the most productive Polish name suffix (and pretty much neutral in meaning). That's when the traditional Polish (sur)names of cognominal kind (see below), very popular with the people, start to morph with the noble -ski ending. Thus, Skowron (lit. lark) changes to Skowroński, Ryba (fish) is now Rybiński, Kaczmarek (=innkeeper) is now Kaczmarski and Kowal (blacksmith) becomes Kowalski.

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Is the -ski Surname Always Polish? 

While the -ski suffix was once an all-Slavic grammatical feature which resulted in this kind of name being formed in many Slavic lands (compare popular Macedonian name suffix -ovski), the popularity of the Polish -ski name in Poland may have contributed to the overall popularity of the name: first in Eastern Europe and then globally. Today, the -ski in the name may still – with high probability – serve as an indication of someone's Polish origins. Remember that when you consider people with the -ski names in Russia, like Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Vaslav Nijinsky or Felix Dzerzhinsky – you can be sure that many of them have some Polish background.

Cognominal Names

Illustration by Paweł Jońca
Illustration by Paweł Jońca

While Polish -ski names are, at least in theory, genetically connected with the upper classes of Polish society, the cognominal surnames are definitely more democratic as they stem from popular folk usage. Considering that most Poles have their roots in rural areas this may be an even more apt candidate for the most “Polish” type of Polish surname.

The cognominal names were formed from nicknames, usually based on occupation, a physical description, or character trait of a person. You'll find here: Nowak (someone 'new' in the area), Bystroń (someone 'quick-witted'), Białas (someone 'white'), and Głowacz (someone with a big 'head'). See also: Szyszka (pine cone), Gwiazda (star), Noga (leg).


Kowalski Means Smith: Polish Occupational Names 

Illustration by Paweł Jońca
Illustration by Paweł Jońca

One of the most interesting sub-categories of cognominal names are the so-called occupational surnames. These are names based on the occupation of an ancestor. Found in probably every culture, the occupational names in Poland come in a great variety, part of it owed to a great productivity of different suffixes which are added to the original name, like -ski, -czyk, -ik, -ak, etc. For example, the word for the profession kowal (meaning blacksmith, compare English last name Smith) in Polish gives Kowalczyk, Kowalik, Kowalski, Kowalewski, among others and along the original Kowal, which is also a popular last name.

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A list of such occupational names can work as a hint as to the hierarchy of the most important professions in Poland in the past, like: Kowalski (blacksmith), Woźniak (custodian), Krawczyk (tailor), Szewczyk (shoemaker), Kaczmarek (innkeeper), Cieślak (carpenter), Kołodziejski (wheelwright), Bednarz (cooper), Kucharski (cook) to name only a few.

Piotr, Pietrzak, Piotrowski... – Surnames formed from Christian first names

The tremendous variety and productivity of Slavic suffixes in the Polish naming system stands behind the great variety of surnames created from first names, most often Christian given names, which by the 16th century had almost entirely replaced the more indigenous Slavic first names (before they were reintroduced in the 19th century). Find out more bout Polish first names.

These are not necessarily classical patronymic names – a term reserved for the name suffixes that carry the sense of “son of” [see below] (but these obviously fit in here too).

One such first name could have in extreme cases produced as many as several dozens of surnames. Like Piotr and its derivatives which would include: Pietrasz, Pietraszak, Pietraszek, Pietruszko, Pietrucha, Pietroń, Pietrus, Pietrzak, Pietrzyk, Piestrzak, Pietrowiak, Peter, Peterek, Petryczek, Petras, Petraś, Petri, Petrino. The classic patronymic suffix -wicz could produce: Petrulewicz, Pietraszkiewicz, Pietrkiewicz, Pietrowicz, Piotrowicz, Pietrusiewicz. The adjectival suffixes would add another handful: Piotrowski, Piotraszewski, Petrażycki, Piestrzyński, Pietracki, Pietruszyński, Pietrykowski, Pietrycki, Pietrzykowski, and many more.

This mind-boggling productivity of suffixes resulted in the huge popularity of such names, confirmed by the statistics. In fact, surnames like Piotrowski, Szymański (from Szymon), Jankowski (Jan), Wojciechowski, Michalski, Pawłowski, Jakubowski, make up today over 25% of all Polish surnames (in regard to the meaning of the root).

In terms of their class origins most of these names were once considered peasant or bourgeois surnames. While today these differences are no longer visible or important, the traditional Polish society would value certain names more than others. As ethnographer Jan Stanisław Bystroń observed, this kind of hierarchy would establish the name Michałowski on top, with Michalski behind it, and Michałowicz third; while surnames like Michalik, Michałek, Michniak or Michnik would lag behind, and be considered common names. Nevertheless they all come from one Polish first name: Michał.

Polish Patronyms

Patronymic phrases are probably one of the most ancient and universal ways to denote people and establish their names, compare: the Arabic ibn/bin; Hebrew ben, bat, and bar; Scottish Mac; English -son; and Scandinavian -søn – which were all used in names as indication that someone is somebody’s son... While Polish patronyms may come in a variety of forms (like the suffixes -yk, -czyk, -ak, -szczak, -czak: Stach, Staszek, Stachura, Staszczyk, Stachowiak, Stasiak – are all sons Stanisław) the most important and recognizable is the one formed by the -wicz suffix – a one that can also be met in the Russian patronymic suffix. In fact, the Polish suffix -wicz is of Ruthenian origin (the more ancient Polish form terminates in -wic; you can find it in early modern names of Polish poets: Szymonowic, Klonowic), where it was used for many centuries by the local nobility. In ethnic Poland, this kind of name would be associated more with the bourgeoisie.

Mickiewicz as typical Polish Belarusian Surname

A certain category of patronymic -wicz names, namely those ending in -kiewicz (the suffix itself derives from Belarus) may also serve as a lesson in the cultural history of Poland, or more precisely, the historical realities of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Many family names, such as Mickiewicz, Mackiewicz, Sienkiewicz, Iwaszkiewicz or Wańkowicz – to name only a few, and only those of well-known Polish writers – originate in the Eastern parts of the former PLC (Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine) and reveal quite an interesting and consistent feature of the making of Polishness in the peripheral Eastern territories. In fact, all these patronymic names stem from first names as well as their local variants typical of Ruthenian locations.

  • Mickiewicz < son of Mit’ka < a diminutive formed from the name Dymitr

  • Mackiewicz < son of Mat’ka < a diminutive formed from Matiey [Eng. Matthew]

  • Sienkiewicz < son of Sien’ka < a diminutive formed from Syemion (Pol. Szymon = Eng. Simon)

  • Iwaszkiewicz < son of Ivashko < a diminutive formed from Ivan (Pol. Jan = John)

  • Wańkowicz < son of Van’ka < a diminutive formed from Ivan (Pol. Jan = John)

The etymology of these patronymic names may serve as proof that many of the families in the Eastern regions of the Commonwealth were originally of Ruthenian origin, and only became Polish in the process of cultural Polonization of these lands, a process which itself had lasted for many centuries.

This is especially conspicuous with such names as Iwaszkiewicz or Wańkowicz, which both derive from the name Ivan (a Ruthenian/Orthodox variant of the name John), definitely not a name you would encounter in ethnic Poland. The surname of Poland’s national poet Adam Mickiewicz may be even more instructive, as it comes from the name Dymitr – a name that is absent from Polish Christian calendar and the main stream of Polish national history.  

Other Names

The multicultural and multiethnic character of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth left its mark on the body of surnames used in Poland. Many names originally of foreign origin were incorporated into the system and are hardly recognizable today as foreign.

Armenian:

Ohanowicz (John), Agopsowicz (Jacob), Kirkorowicz (Gregory) Abgarowicz, Aksentowicz, Awakowicz, Sefarowicz, Bohosiewicz (=Paweł = Polos, Bohos); Ajwasowski ,Torosowicz

Tatar:

Abdulewicz, Achmatowicz, Arsłanowicz, Bohatyrewicz (od: Bogadar), Safarewicz, Szabaniewski (szban), Chalembek, Kotłubaj (bej), Mielikbaszyc, Kadyszewicz (kadi), Tochtomyszewicz.   

Lithuanian

Żemajtis, Staniszkis, Piekuś, Pekoś, Gedroyć, Dowgird, Dowkont

Belarusian

Radziwiłł, Jagiełło, Sapieha, Mickiewicz, Sienkiewicz, Paszkiewicz, Waszkiewicz, Kościuszko, Moniuszko

Ukrainian

Horodyjski, Hołowiński, Tretiak, Mechaniów, Jacyszyn, Ometiuk, Smetaniuk, Hawryluk, Fedoruk

Silesian

Marniok, Przybylok, Garbaciok, Basista, Korfanty, Godula, Widera, Piszczek, Szafranek, Trąba, Jezusek, Przybyła, Brzonkalik, Buła, Drabiniok, Paterok, Gorzelik, Pyrtek, Hachuł, Uszok, Dyrda, Grziwocz, Wypchoł, Wywioł, Suchanka, Hołomka.


Surnames of Polish Jews (until 1795)

Jews were the last group of Polish society to acquire proper family names. This coincided with the loss of Poland’s sovereignty at the end of the 18th century. As a result, the process of giving names to Jews was initiated and run almost exclusively by the ruling administrations of Prussia, Russia and Austria. This does not mean that Polish Jews did not use surnames before this period.

In this early period, the typical patronymic names of Polish Jews were formed with much freedom. As Jan Bystroń suggests, Moses, the son of Jacob could be referred to as: Mojżesz ben Jakub, Mojżesz Jakubowicz or Mojżesz Jakuba but also as Moszek Kuby, Moszko Kuby, etc [the last three are formed with adding the name of the father in Polish genetive].

In a similar fashion, the typical toponymic coinages could be formed differently depending on the language: like Wolf Bocheński, Aron Drohobycki, Izrael Złoczowski vis-a-vis Szmul Kaliszer or Mechele Rawer. As Jan Bystroń explains, the same person could function under a different name depending on whether he was addressing a Jewish or Polish community: “A Jew from Poznań could speak of himself in Yiddish as Pozner, but in Polish he would call himself Poznańskim (the same goes for such pairs as Warszauer/Warszawski, Krakauer/Krakowski, Łobzowski/Lobzower, Pacanower/Pacanowski),” explains Bystroń.

These names, formed from towns and cities (not necessarily only Polish) are generally considered as typical (if not exclusively) of the names of Polish Jews, at least from before the period when these were officially imposed on the Jews by the administrations of the partitioning countries.

The Names of Polish Jews under Foreign Administrations

Starting in the late 18th century Polish Jews were officially given names by the new administrations. This was particularly effective in the territories administered by Austria and Prussia where special naming commissions were established running on a premise that not two identical surnames should enter the books.

This led to a frenzy of bureaucratic inventiveness which produced the majority of Jewish surnames in Poland. Those who could afford it could choose names that could be considered beautiful or august. Composites were preferred combining elements like: Diamant, Perl, Gold-, Silber-, Rosen-, Blumen- and -berg, - tal, -baum, -band, -stein.

Simultaneously, some of these names may have been given with the intent of ridiculing Jews: Goldberg, Rosenkranz, Gotlieb. Particularly notorious and offensive were the names given by Austrian officials in Galicia: Wohlgeruch, Geldshrank, Singmirwas, Pulverbestandteil, Temperaturwechsel, Ochcenschwanz, Kanalgeruch, Wanzenknicker. Among them names that were downright obscene: Jungfernmilch, Afterduft.

This kind of name was generally not typical of the Polish administration; However, some names like the above mentioned were adopted in the 19th century, compare: Inwentarz, Alfabet, Kopyto, Kałamarz, even Wychodek. Some composites strike one as translations from German: Różanykwiat, Dobraszklanka, Książkadomodlenia.

A completely different strategy was adopted in Russia. Under the Russian administration the most popular were names with Slavic suffixes: -ovich, -evich, -ski, -uk, -in, -ov, -ev, etc. Most of them patronymics: Abramowicz, Berkowicz, Dawidowicz,, Dworkowicz, Dynowicz, Gutowicz, Joselewicz, Jakubowski). An interesting feature of the Russian surnames of Polish Jews were the names formed from mother’s first name (matronymica): Rywski, Rywin, etc.

Feminine forms

One of the particularities of the Polish surname system is that the surname of a woman often differs from that of her husband or father. Today this is most noticeable in the adjectival names like Kowalski – the wife's name is Kowalska. However, in the past the system of feminine surname suffixes was much more elaborate, reflecting not only the sex but also the marital status of a woman. This basically means that one could tell whether a woman was married or maiden just upon hearing her last name. Here's how you could tell:

Maiden:

A woman who was never married used her father's surname with the suffix -ówna or -anka - the form depending on the final sound of the masculine surname (-ówna for consonant-ending, -anka for vowel-ending). Examples: Kordziak (father) – Kordziakówna (daughter), Morawa – Morawianka.

Compare: Anna Świderkówna, Zuzanna Ginczanka, Anna Skarżanka.

Wife:

A married woman or a widow used her husband's surname with the suffix -owa or -'na / -yna:

Examples: Nowak – Nowakowa, Koba – Kobina; Puchała – Puchalina

This tradition is embedded in an older folk usage that disappeared over the course of the 20th century and is seen today as a relic of a time forever gone – but it's still a part of culture.

And the Winner Is...

Illustration by Paweł Jońca
Nowak - the most popular Polish rurname right now, Illustration by Paweł Jońca

What are the most popular Polish surnames today? Here’s the top 10 most popular Polish last names (as of 2014):

1. Nowak - 277 000

2. Kowalski - 178 000

3. Wiśniewski - 139 000

4. Wójcik - 126 500

5. Kowalczyk - 124 000

6. Kamiński - 120 500

7. Lewandowski - 118 400

8. Dąbrowski - 117 500

9. Zieliński - 116 370

10. Szymański - 114 000

As you can see Nowak is the most popular surname in Poland. Before we tell you what that could mean, check out the most common surnames in other European countries:

Most common surnames in Europe; Source: https://jakubmarian.com/most-common-surnames-by-country-in-europe/
Most common surnames in Europe; Source: https://jakubmarian.com/most-common-surnames-by-country-in-europe/ 

What do we learn from this list?

In terms of linguistic build-up, the list is strikingly monolithic, featuring only names with Polish Slavic roots – a fact which obviously reflects the homogeneous character of Polish society after WW2. This is mildly contrasted with the fact that by far most popular Polish name is Nowak – a name which originated as a name denoting someone new in the region, a possible foreigner or migrant from a different location.

Otherwise the list features three occupational names (Kowalski, Wójcik, Kowalczyk) and five names of toponymic origin: Wiśniewski, Kamiński, Lewandowski (?), Dąbrowski and Zieliński. No. 10 Szymański is the only example of a surname formed from a first name.

Out of these 10 top names on the list seven are -ski names, which corroborates the theory that -ski is the ultimate Polish name.    

*The bulk of the onomastic and linguistic material presented in the article comes from Jan Stanisław Bystroń's classic Nazwiska polskie.

Author: Mikołaj Gliński, December 2015

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