Surname Origins - ATPC


Learning: Polish Names


Polish surnames can be very difficult to research for a variety of reasons. Here, we briefly introduce you to some of the naming conventions that our Polish ancestors practiced. There are a number of internet resources and books written on the subject and we encourage you to avail yourself of them for more specifics on the subject.

What's Your Surname?

Your family name as you know it today may have been quite different in the time of your ancestors. Surnames were originally chosen to associate with someone or something else. A person's work is one example of how this naming process went. As an example, if you were a butcher, in Polish you have went by Rzeznik (butcher). But, there is more! Sometimes a suffix would be added to a new born child's surname, a baby Rzeznik might become a baby Rzeznikski or shorten to Rzezniski (son of butcher) or one of the various other suffixes shown below.

The process of recording births, marriages, deaths and so on, was not precise. The final recorded name very much depended on the recorder's capabilities to know proper spelling, know the pronunciation, and be devoted to accuracy. This was not always the case and records of this nature are cause or sleepless nights for many genealogist. So, your ancestor started with Rzeznik, a descendent became a Rzesnikski, another descendent became Wesnecski (several spelling errors later).

Some major problems with changing of surnames came when many of our ancestors decided to leave the homeland and journey to another country. The recording process on ships and emigration clearance centers was very poor, primarily due to the language difference between the person doing the recording and the ability of your ancestor communicate information to the recorder. I can only imagine that if I were the immigrant, I would be shaking my head up and down in a yes motion to whatever the recorder said. Therefore, it is important to assume that your present name is spelled differently than the name of your distant ancestor. This will help you find connections to family members that other wise would be hidden from your search. Use soundex searches whenever they are available to you.

Surname Origins:

The column on the right is a short list of Polish of words that form the root source for many surnames. Surnames were also derived from an association with a village or saint. Over time, surnames from root Polish words would most likely change through addition, subtraction or simply changing a letter for whatever reason seemed to be an acceptable practice of the time. There is much more detail regarding the background on surnames that go well beyond this simple reference. If you are interested and would like an in depth understanding of the origin and meaning of surnames, one of the best books on this subject is, "Polish Surnames: Origins and Meanings", written by William F. "Fred" Hoffman. Some online resources of his work may be found at these locations:

  • Language & Lineage Press: Publisher of Polish and Eastern Europe information by William F. Hoffman and Jonathan D. Shea.
  • PGSA: Notes on Selected Polish Surnames: Housed on the PGSA site, are a large number of names discussed by Fred Hoffman in response to viewer's questions. Yours might be one!
  • PolishRoots: Excellent reference done by William F. "Fred" Hoffman. Fred discusses the root of several surnames. Yours might be one of them! Quick link to Surnames beginning with:
    (A - G) or (H - Z)
  • A Farmer by Any Other Name: Definitions of certain words understood by your ancestors may be very different from the contemporary meaning. Article by Fred Hoffman.
  • List of William F. Hoffmans written contributions for purchase.

    Other resources:

  • Polish Names
    An Onomastikon (dictionary of names) by Kate Monk is an extensive reference. It includes short historical backgrounds, male and female first names or personal names, and surnames or family names, from many countries and periods.
  • PolandGenWeb
    Besides Polish, they touch on Ukraine, German and Jewish naming customs. Check their page Common Polish First Names if you are curious about given names.
  • Immigration & Naturalization Service (US)
    Not specific to Polish, but gives insight into how names change as a part of the process of immigrating.
  • Surnames Origins
    Polish Meaning in English
    Ciesla Carpenter
    Drozd dweller at the sign of the thrush
    Garncarz potter
    Gorcyzka one who works with mustard
    Gospodarz farmer
    Handlarz peddler
    Lesnik woodsman
    Kramarz stall-keeper
    Krawiec tailor
    Krzew shrub
    Krzyw bent, crooked
    Kupiec merchant
    Kusnierz furrier
    Lowca hunter
    Mierzeja spit, sand-bar
    Muraze mason
    Mysliwy hunter
    Nauczyciel teacher
    Pajak spider-like characteristics
    Pasterz shepherd
    Piekarz baker
    Pieniazek small coin
    Rzeznik butcher
    Robotnik Rolny farmhand
    Rudzinski dweller near an ore mine
    Rzeznik butcher
    Skryba clerk
    Slodownik malster
    Sroka magpie
    Szczur rat
    Szeroki wide or broad
    Szeryf sheriff
    Szewc shoemaker
    Szlachic nobleman
    Szynkarz innkeeper
    Tkacz weaver
    Uczciwy craftsman
    Ulan cavalryman
    Wojak soldier
    Wyrobnik laborer
    Zlolnierz soldier
    Zlotnik goldsmith
    Prefix Meaning
    jan Christian John, i.e., Jankowski
    kowal smith, i.e., Kowalski
    krys derived from Krzysztof, i.e., Krzysiak
    Suffix Meaning
    iak son of
    cki phonetic version of ski
    czak son of
    czyk small
    ewski associated with name of place
    orocki son of
    owski associated with name of place
    owicz son of
    ska daughter of (femine of ski)
    ski son of (initially a sign of nobility)
    yk son of
    Additional resourcs:
  • A more extensive list of occupational roots for names may be seen at
  • For a more in depth article by William F. Hoffman on the meaning of Polish surname suffixes, go to RootsWeb.
  • Polish alphabet: It doesn't have "Q","V" or "X" letters. If your surname begins with one of these, it has been changed. If your surname begins with a "V", it was probably changed from a "W" which in Polish has the English "V" sound.
  • ATPC & Surnames: ATPC does provide services such as personal genealogical research or surname meanings. Please use the other web sites resources that may be able to respond to these needs.

    Related resources:
    1. Family Surname Suffixes by J.Armata - Examples of how suffixes affect on surnames.
    2. Polish Naming Conflicts by M.Kusmierz - Miss-spelling of names and why.
    3. Names: A Logic for Understanding S.Wisniowski - Latin and Biblical sources of names.
    4. Polish Subject Library - Additional link resources.
    5. Given Names Cross Reference (PDF) - Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader. Cross-reference of foreign name equivalents including English/Polish.

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