What’s the hidden connection between the Russian avant-garde painter Kazimir Malevich, Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, and the 19th-century American politician Thaddeus Stevens?
The answer is: they all bore Polish names. But do names have a nationality in the first place? Here are six stories which prove that names can travel beyond geographic boundaries, transgressing barriers of space, time and nationality. They show how names often end up carrying hidden meanings with them, like stories of political resistance or lofty moral values.
Kazimierz seems one of the few ancient Polish Slavic names to have worked its way outside of the country and into wider use. The name, which curiously can be translated as ‘he who destroys the peace’, was the name of the Polish dukes from the first Polish royal dynasty, the Piasts, before it continued as a frequent name in the Jagiellonian dynasty.
But it wasn’t until the early 16th century, when Prince Kazimir, the son of Casimir IV, died at a young age and was canonised by the Roman Church that the name also became popular outside of royalty. As Casimir, it was used in France, mostly by nobility, until the 19th century. It also travelled across the Atlantic, as seen in the last name of contemporary Brazilian soccer player Casemiro (as his last name).
In the cultural and geographic expanse of Eastern Europe, the name serves as a good indicator of a possible Polish family background amongst people bearing it. One good example is the Russian avant-garde painter Kazimir Malevich, who was born into a Polish family living near Kiev in the late 19th century.
Famous Poles: King Kazimir the Great; Saint Casimir, hero of American Revolutionary War Kazimierz Pułaski; inventor of the concept of vitamins Kazimierz Funk; composer Kazimierz Serocki, film director Kazimierz Kutz.
Famous non-Poles: French composer Casimir Ney; French poet Casimir Delavigne; Russian artist Kazimir Malevich, Brazilian soccer player Carlos Casemiro.
The name Konrad doesn’t at first strike a particularly Polish tone. Admittedly, its earliest linguistic origins point to Germanic languages, and the name has been used in many European countries from Middle Ages until today. And yet, there are a couple of good reasons to think of it as one of the most emblematic ‘Polish’ names.
In Poland, particularly since the early 19th century, the name has enjoyed an unparallelled symbolic position, associated with politically subversive undertones. This peculiar popularity is thanks to the work of Polish national bard Adam Mickiewicz. The poet employed the name for the protagonist of at least two of his major works, namely Konrad Wallenrod (1928) and Forefathers’ Eve (1932), which both portray heroes engaged in complex existential and political dilemmas, and who eventually sacrifice their life and happiness for their country's sake.
Across the 19th century, the name was given to children in partitioned Poland to mark their parents’ strong patriotic, anti-Tsarist attitude. Such was the case with Apollo Korzeniowski, the Polish writer and political activist deported to Siberia in the wake of January Uprising, and the father of Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, better known today as Joseph Conrad.
From early on, the boy was called Konrad by his family, a tradition which likely inspired him to to later adopt it as his pen-name. Despite turning to English and becoming an English writer, Conrad remained a strong advocate of the Polish national cause.
So while Joseph Conrad is today considered one of the most prominent English writers of all time, his last name stands as a firm reminder of his family’s Polish patriotic tradition.
Famous Poles: Duke Konrad I of Mazovia; novelist Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski (aka Joseph Conrad); pioneering photoograph Konrad Brandel, theatre director Konrad Swinarski.
Famous non-Poles: Konrad von Wallenrode, head of the Teutonic Knights; German politician Konrad Adenauer
Stanisław was the name of a Polish Mediaeval saint whose martyr death at the hands of King Bolesław established his cult as early as the mid 11th century.
But, as Polish ethnographer Stanisław Bystroń explains, it was very likely the religious cult of another Stanisław, namely Stanisław Kostka, that helped spread the name around the world. With the Jesuit-led cult of Stanisław Kostka, the patron saint of youth, the name travelled all the way to the New World. As history shows, such meetings can lead to rather unexpected results – this is certainly the case when we look at the name of the rebellious Californian Native American warrior Estanislao.
In the 19th century, particularly at the time of national uprisings, the name was sometimes seen as a gesture of solidarity with partitioned Poland. This is particularly true in the case of Catholic countries that shared a similar history of political oppression, such as Ireland. A case in point is the name of James Joyce’s younger brother: Stanislaus.
Famous Poles: Saint Stanisław of Szczepanów; Saint Stanisław Kostka; Polish king in exile in France, Stanisław Leszczyński; King Stanisław August Poniatowski; composer Stanisław Moniuszko; mathematician Stanisław Ulam; science-fiction writer Stanisław Lem.
Famous non-Poles: Yokut leader Estanislao; Italian composer Stanislao Gastaldon; Italian chemist Stanislao Cannizzaro; Irish writer Stanislaus Joyce; Lithuanian politician Stanislovas Narutavičius; tennis player Stan Wawrinka.
The name Tadeusz seems so closely tied to the history of Poland that it almost passes now for Polish. The truth is that its origins go back to the Aramaic name Thaddai, and the second name of Jude the Apostle. It was actually only around the 18th century that the name started to gain popularity in Eastern Europe, starting in the north-eastern regions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (today’s Belarus), precisely the area and time when Tadeusz Kościuszko was born.
With Kościuszko, the name travelled to America where his fame, combined with the popularity of a book based on his biography (find the whole history here), propelled the name to stardom across the nation. One of the most famous Thaddeuses in American history, Thaddeus Stevens, was given his first name in recognition of Kościuszko’s contribution to the American Revolutionary War. His future role in the process of abolishing slavery in America can be seen as a symbolic continuation of Kosciuszko’s legacy.
Famous Poles: military leader Tadeusz Kościuszko; politician Tadeusz Reytan; poets Tadeusz Peiper and Tadeusz Różewicz,writer Tadeusz Borowski
Non-Poles: Jude the Apostle; Italian Mediaeval painter Taddeo Gaddi; American abolitionist politician Thaddeus Stevens; American inventor Thaddeus Cahill; pioneering Civil War-era aeronaut Thaddeus C.S. Lowe; NBA basketball player Thaddeus Young
The earliest etymological origins of the name Wanda are uncertain. One possible derivation points to the Germanic name ‘Wend’, which refers to a Slavic tribe who inhabited eastern Germany. In Polish Mediaeval legends, Wanda is the name of the daughter of King Krak, the legendary founder of Kraków, the girl decided to kill herself rather than marry a German king.
In Western Europe, the name first appeared in literature in the 18th century through French and German dramas. In the English-speaking world, the name’s popularity dates back to the novel Wanda (1883) by Ouijda. Even earlier, another famous literary Wanda appears as the protagonist of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's 1870 novel Venus in Furs: Wanda von Dunajew.
In Poland, various Wandas were revived by Romantic literature, in works by Słowacki and Norwid. Wanda was even the name of the first Polish women’s magazine (1818). By the 1830s, it was already a popular name in Poland, but its popularity in peaked just after World War II, when it allegedly became the second most popular name given to infants.
The purely phonetic qualities of the name, and its coincidental similarity to another English word, had taken Wanda into film. Most famously, it was the titular character’s name in A Fish Called Wanda. A similar misunderstanding as to its meaning is likely behind the name’s popularity in America (which peaked in the 1930s) where it is popularly interpreted as meaning ‘wanderer’.
Famous Poles: harpsichordist Wanda Landowska; mountaineer Wanda Rutkiewicz; jazz singer Wanda Warska.
Non-Poles: American rock’n’roll era singer Wanda Jackson; the Marvellettes vocalist Wanda Young; French actress Wanda Kosakiewicz (Marie Olivier); American comedian Wanda Sykes
Originally of Germanic origin, the first famous bearer of the name was Siegmund, a French king and saint from the 5th century BCE. In Poland, the name’s local variant, Sigismund, became popular in the 16th century, when it became a frequent name in the Jagiellonian and then Vasa royal dynasties. This early popularity is reflected in the name of the protagonist of Calderon’s play Life’s a Dream, Segismundo, the piece famously set in Poland
The name continued to be popular in the area of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. As a result, the name of some of the more famous Sigmunds in Central-Eastern Europe can be seen as a testimony to the lasting impact of Polish political and cultural tradition.
This seems to be the case with Sigmund Freud, whose family descended from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth before migrating to Galicia and eventually Austria in the late 19th century. Allegedly, the name Sigismund, which was Freud’s first name for his whole adolescent life, was chosen by the boy’s father in recognition of the political tradition of tolerance extolled by Polish kings. It seems the future father of psychoanalysis, changed his name in his late teens from Sigismund to the more German-sounding Sigmund when he entered Vienna university in 1873.
The first name of the Russian surrealist writer Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky also shows a pleasing hint of Polish roots. All that, if not that his last name – marked by typical Polish consonant clusters – wasn’t already a dead-sure indication of his nationality.
Famous Poles: King Sigismund I the Old; Romantic poet Zygmunt Krasiński; philosopher Zygmunt Bauman
Famous non-Poles: Lithuanian duke Sigismund Kęstutaitis; psychotherapist Sigmund Freud; Russian writer Sigismund Krzhizhanovsky; Russian-Ukrainian composer Sigismund Zaremba.
And what could be the next Polish names to go global? Add your suggestions in the comments!
Author: Mikołaj Gliński, February 2017