Posts Tagged ‘Names & Surnames’

Trendy names are all the rage now, but if you recognized the title as the opening line to Moby Dick, then you’ll realize that some names are memorable because they “stand out” from the rest — which is why parents often seek the unusual.  Many of the first names in my family tree wouldn’t have seemed unusual at the time they were used, but today in America they would be.  Maybe they’ll make a comeback, since today’s it’s all about “unusual” names.  In my ancestors’ times, names followed certain conventions.  In Poland, I’ve already written about name days or imieniny, in which the baby’s name was usually chosen based on the feast day of the saint on or near the day of birth.  Most of my Polish families followed this without exception.  In Germany, specifically in Bavaria, the church’s calendar was occasionally used for names, but more likely the child was given the name of the parent or someone in the family.  Certain saint’s names were extra popular though – in the town where I’ve done the most research, Pfaffenhofen an der Ilm, a great majority of the boys were named Johann or Josef and most of the girls were either Maria Anna or Anna Maria.

Given my entire ancestry comes from those two regions, I have my whole family tree to work with in discussing the topic of first names.  I’ve documented roughly one hundred ancestors so far, with half of that number coming from my Bavarian quarter and the rest from my Polish sides.  The most popular boy’s name in my family tree in both cultures is Joseph, which is Josef in German and Józef in Polish.  Two of my great-grandfathers were named Joseph, and several of my great-greats.  The name John, or Johann in German and Jan in Polish, is also popular in my family tree.  For girls, the Bavarian ladies are mostly the Maria Anna – Anna Maria combination.  But on the Polish sides, the most popular female names are Elżbieta and Katarzyna, or Elizabeth and Katherine.

In a family tree full of Joe’s and Mary’s, what are the unusual names that really stand out?  I have several favorites among the more unusual names.  I don’t consider them favorites because I’d name a child that myself, but because they add a little spice to the family history.

Among my Bavarian ancestors, my favorite unusual names are Dionys, Kreszens, Wolfgang, and Walburga.

Dionys is the German form of the name Dionysius, the Greed god of wine, revelry, and debauchery.  I wonder if young Dionys was a rabble-rouser that lived up to the name or the complete opposite?  Of course, the name shouldn’t only be associated with the infamous Greek god – it is also the name of several saints, and there are monasteries and churches dedicated to St. Dionys throughout Bavaria.  The given name belongs to my 3rd great-grandfather, Dionys Daniel.  Interestingly enough, Dionys married a woman with one of the other unusual names on my list: Walburga.  While the name isn’t as popular today in Germany, it was more common in earlier centuries.  The name itself if of German origin and means either “ruler of the fortress” from wald meaning “rule” and burg meaning “fortress”, or it could also mean “one who guards or protects” using the meaning of the Old High German word bergen.  (I can’t resist the side comment that if the couple lived up to their names one would assume that Walburga kept Dionys in line!)  The name Walburga was popular in Germany due to St. Walburga, who was the daughter of King Richard of England and came to Germany in the 8th century as a missionary.  What name did Walburga and Dionys give their daughter?  Anna Maria…of course.

Kresensz is another of my favorites.  It is a female name derived from the Latin Cresentia, which means “to grow in fame or power”.  Kresensz Zinsmeister Bergmeister is my 4th great-grandmother who lived from 1777 to 1852.

These three unusual German names all come from my great-grandfather’s side of the family.  On his wife’s side, the one name that stands out is that of her own great-grandfather, Wolfgang Fischer (1775-1820).  The name Wolfgang literally means “to go wolf”, so one can only wonder why his parents used the name.  But, it is also the name of another Bavarian saint, St. Wofgang, who was a 10th Century bishop in Regensburg, a town not far from where my Wolfgang spent his life.

In Poland, I find that most of the names that seem unusual to American ears are merely spelled differently from their English translations, such as my 2nd great-grandfather Wawrzyniec Zawodny.  The name looks exotic, but it is a Polish version of Laurentius or Lawrence.  One name that does not translate at all into English, and is therefore unusual by American standards, is his daughter, Wacława.  The name is the feminine form of Wacław, which means “may he gain fame and glory”.  It doesn’t have a direct English translation though, which is why she used “Laura” in the U.S.

My favorite unusual male Polish name is Hilary.  Yes, we forget today that Hilary is actually a male name!  It comes from the Latin hilaris which means “merry” and “joyful”.  I hope Hilary was a happy guy to have a name like Hilary – today he‘d be ridiculed.  Hilary Pater is my 4th great-grandfather and the oldest ancestor I have found so far in my Pater family.

My favorite unusual female Polish name is Teofilia.  Again, this name is a feminine derivative of the name Teofil, which means “dear friend of God”.  Hilary’s son, with the more common name of Jan, married a girl name Teofilia.  Their son is one of the many Josephs in the family tree!  Too bad they didn’t use Teofil, and he would stand out a little more from the average Joe!

[This post was written for the 11th edition of the Carnival of Central and Eastern European Genealogy: First (Given) Names.]

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In Part 1 of my interview with William “Fred” Hoffman, I introduced Fred as the author or co-author of several books about names, surnames, and translating genealogical documents.  Today, we continue our conversation about surnames.

WPiP: When they began using surnames in Poland, were they standardized – passing from father to son – or not?

Fred: When surnames first started in Poland, there was no sense of any hard and fast rules that had to be followed.  Second names were just a convenience, a way of distinguishing this Jan from that Jan, this Piotr from that Piotr. At this point, they were not really what we’d consider surnames; they were more like nicknames. Some, by their nature, were appropriate to pass from father to son. Others were not. As time passed, circumstances made it more and more useful for people to bear a consistent surname. Given that universal literacy did not become a reality until the 19th century and even later, it should be no surprise that spellings could vary quite a bit. People were just sounding names out much of the time, and if they didn’t really have a good grasp of spelling, the results could be, well, interesting.

Spelling isn’t the only issue; the actual forms of surnames could vary greatly. Many researchers are perplexed when they see the same person or family called by several different names in documents. But there is usually some rationale to it, if you can just grasp it. For instance, if your father was called Jan, “John,” and you were, too, it wouldn’t be strange if people got my habit of referring to you as Janowicz, which means “son of Jan.” Then when you got older, you might become THE Jan, and your son would become Janowicz. Or you might remain Janowicz, and maybe they’d call him Janik, which means basically “son of Jan.” Or they might tell him Janczyk, which means the same thing. Or they might call him Janowski, which means “of the kin of Jan” or “one from the place of Jan.” Any of these names — as well as others I haven’t mentioned — might seem appropriate because they are all perceived as connected; they all refer to Jan in some way.

Remember, this was not a highly regimented, centralized society. No one had to fill a computer forms or apply for Social Security, so there was no great pressure to be absolutely consistent when it came to what you called someone.  Most folks lived in villages or on farms where everyone knew everyone else. It didn’t matter what you called a local person; everyone knew who you were talking about. (If you’ve ever lived in a small town, you known what I mean.) Until comparatively recently in Poland’s history, there was no social consciousness of a need for consistency in terms of surnames.

To be honest, from what I’ve read, surname consistency in Poland was not emphasized until after the partitions. The Austrian, Prussian, and Russian governments tended to insist on unchanging surnames, because it made their new subjects easier to keep track of. I get the impression a lot of Poles were baffled by this, thinking “Only some Prussian with a stick up his butt could possibly be so obsessed with something so trivial.”  It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if some Poles intentionally played games with their surnames, just to give their foreign masters a little aggravation.

By the way, I am pretty certain that some immigrants intentionally gave misleading questions to answers about their names and other personal information, because they didn’t want to be too easily traced. We may laugh now, but many of them still feared the secret police back home. Besides, their experience with authority on the whole was not pleasant, so they had no incentive to be cooperative. What if they left home to avoid military service, and suddenly wham! they’re deported right back to the village they tried to escape from? I have no doubt a lot of them felt it would be stupid to be too forthcoming when snooping authorities — census takers and the like — went around asking questions.

WPiP: What’s the strangest (hardest) name misspelling you’ve encountered? (Hopefully Pointkouski isn’t it!)

Fred: POINTKOUSKI is a good one, but it’s not one of the tougher ones I’ve seen. My experience with Polish names suggested immediately that it had to be a mangled version of PIĄTKOWSKI/PIONTKOWSKI. It wasn’t too hard to recognize.

Let’s see, I’ve seen first names mangled pretty badly. In one case, Kazimierz turned into Kagimu; in another, Hieronym (Jerome) turned into Heroin. As for surnames, I’ve seen NIEDZIAŁKOWSKI turned in to COSKEY, and INDYKIEWICZ converted to ENDECAVAGE. I think the worst mangled surname I’ve seen was WĘGRZYN, with nasal E, which sounds kind of like “VENG-zhin,” becoming WING CHING. Someone told me about this the other day, and I thought, “OK, that one takes the cake!”

WPiP: How did you become interested in name research?

Fred: Studying languages has always been my favorite thing — naturally I couldn’t be a doctor or lawyer or someone who makes good money, I had to be a linguist! My B.A. and M.A. was in foreign languages, specifically German, with Russian as a second language. When I finished earning my M.A. and discovered that employers weren’t lining up to hire me, I tried different jobs, and had some success in the area of free-lance writing and editing.

In the 80s, a relative of my wife introduced me to the Polish Genealogical Society (now the Polish Genealogical Society of America, PGSA). Its founder and president, Ed Peckwas, also edited the society’s newsletter, and needed someone to give him a little help with articles that involved translating some Polish. I had never studied the language and didn’t speak it, but my wife is of Polish descent, and that link made me kind of interested in the language. Polish had the reputation of being hard, and if you’re a linguist, you love challenges! So even before I met Ed Peckwas, I had started trying to teach myself Polish, and found that my study of Russian at the University gave me a leg up on understanding. This helped me do translations, and more and more Ed began to rely on me to help him with material for his newsletter.

Ed was always looking for books the Society might publish, and from his contact with researchers, he realized that a book explaining Polish surnames might go over well. I guess I was the only person he knew who could do the research in Polish necessary for such a book. He asked me if I’d be willing to work on this project.  At first I thought “God, no!” because I had some notion how much work it would require. Still, I was rather intrigued by the idea, if only because there was so little in English on this subject. If you have the itch to write a book, it’s hard to resist the idea of being the first person to write on a subject. So gradually, I got more and more interested in studying Polish names, and eventually I thought I had enough material to write a book.

The task was enormously simplified when a Polish researcher I’d met, Rafał Prinke of Poznań, found out I was interested in Polish names and sent me a copy of a recent book on that subject by a Polish expert, Kazimierz Rymut. It wasn’t a very big book, but it was a revelation to me. Rymut had come up with a workable way to deal with Polish surnames, organizing them by the roots they came from.  I took the same basic approach he did, and used much of the material he provided, trying make it very clear to all readers that he was the one who’d done all the work, not me. That’s still true; I don’t do much in the way of original research, I just help people who don’t read Polish learn what the experts have said about their names.

Anyway, the Society published my book, and it sold well, for such a niche item. I started corresponding with Professor Rymut, and by then, I was hooked! I’ll never get rich by sharing analyses of Polish names in English, but it is something I enjoy doing. I can honestly say I learn something new every day. The only bad thing about that is, when I look back on my work in the early 90s, I’m really embarrassed by it. I guess that’s the way it goes; if I live another 10 years, and look back on the work I’m doing now, I’ll probably think “What a moron!”

Still, I think this work is some help to researchers — at least I’ve heard from plenty who said I was a godsend. As long as that’s true, and I think I’m doing someone a little good, I’d like to keep going.

Well, the book was certainly useful in my own research of the Polish names in my family!  For more information on Fred’s books and where to purchase them, see Part 1 of our interview.  Stay tuned for Part 3 when we’ll move on to the topic of translations…do you need to be fluent in a language to properly translate? What about using computer programs or online translations?  Find out Fred’s answers tomorrow!

Update, September 1, 2008 – The 4-part series is complete, so here are the links to each segment of our Interview with William F. Hoffman:

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This week, What’s Past is Prologue is delighted to host an interview with author William F. Hoffman.  Those readers with Polish heritage are probably thinking “Cool!” while those without may be asking “Who?”  William “Fred” Hoffman is the author or co-author of several key works that are highly useful to genealogists.  Two of his books deal primarily with names and surnames:

  • Polish Surnames: Origins and Meanings (Second Edition) was published by the Polish Genealogical Society of America (PGSA) in 1997 and remains the premier work on Polish surnames (the first edition was published in 1993).  If you have a Polish or Eastern European name in your ancestry, this is the work that will offer some clues as to what the name means and where it may have originated.
  • First Names of the Polish Commonwealth: Origins and Meanings was co-authored with George W. Helon and published by the PGSA in 1998.  “Polish” first names come from many different languages; this book sorts it all out and carefully explains their origins and meanings.

Fred isn’t just known as a “name” expert though…he’s also an expert in translating genealogical documents!  He has co-authored several books with Jonathan D. Shea including

  • Following the Paper Trail: A Multilingual Translation Guide offers help with German, Swedish, French, Italian, Latin, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish, Czech, Polish, Russian, Hungarian, and Lithuanian.
  • In Their Words: A Genealogist’s Translation Guide to Polish, German, Latin, and Russian Documents is available so far in Volume I: Polish and Volume II: Russian.  If you are researching documents in these languages, Fred and Jonathan’s guide is simply indispensable.  I own Volume I, and it’s nearly 400 pages of  record samples, translations, and explanations about the Polish language and handwriting.

So, readers, if you didn’t recognize the name “William F. Hoffman” you may be realizing by now that perhaps you should have.  I encourage you to consult his works.  The “name” books are available through PGSA and the “translation” guides are available through Avotaynu.

As you can imagine, there are a lot of things to discuss with someone as knowledgeable as Fred is about these topics.  My interview will be divided into four parts and posted throughout the week.  I invite you to pour a cup of your favorite beverage and join us as we chat…

WPiP: What do you think is the biggest myth or misconception about researching Polish names?

Fred: I’d say the biggest misconception I’ve encountered consistently is that surnames (not just Polish, all surnames) are etched in stone — that they’re unique, utterly stable, and indispensable in research.

Of course, a correct surname can help enormously in tracing your family roots. But anyone with significant experience quickly realizes that very few surnames are unique; they are vulnerable to misspelling and outright mangling; and they aren’t necessarily all that helpful. I tell people all the time that the correct place name can be far more valuable than a correct surname. Records are kept locally, so if you can find the village where your ancestors lived and get access to the local records, you can often spot your family while looking through those records, even if you have the surname wrong, by matching up names and dates and places. If all you have is the surname, even if it’s correct, you’re in the same position as a person wandering through the streets of Kraków or Warsaw yelling “Does anybody know who my family is?” Good luck with that!

You have to remember: surnames are human inventions. Humans do not usually do things perfectly and logically and consistently; we tend to do the best we can at the time with what we have. A surname is not a graven image. It’s more like a snapshot, a picture of something that was appropriate to an ancestor at the time. There is no guarantee it remained appropriate. An ancestor might have gotten the name BYSTRON (from _bystry_, “quick, rapid”) because he was quick, he moved rapidly. The name stuck, and his descendants were called by it. They might have been a pack of slugs, but once the surname was in place, it tended to hang on. What started out as a perfect description of an ancestor could become downright misleading within a generation or two!

Plus there could be a hundred other families in various parts of Poland who also went by that name because they, too, had quick ancestors. So much for unique and reliable! We know very well that a name like Smith or Jones is hardly unique — why are we surprised when Kowalski or Jankowicz, which basically mean the same things in Polish, are not terribly helpful in tracking down a given ancestor?

As for stability, what bothers me most about researchers and names is that people don’t apply their everyday experience to this question. We’ve all had our names misheard, misunderstood, misspelled — why are we astonished when this also happened to our ancestors? My colleague Jonathan Shea tells me I wouldn’t believe how many ways people have mangled his name. It’s four letters, for God’s sake!

So I advise people to keep an open mind about surnames, especially their spelling. Bring your own experience to bear, and you’ll realize names are not unique, they’re subject to change, and therefore they can only be of limited help. That may depress some folks; but with no false notions, they’ll be in a better position to deal with what they actually encounter in the course of their research.

WPiP: Some researchers focus on one spelling of a name only with no variations.  Is this the best way?

Fred: As my answer to the first question indicates, no, this is almost a guarantee of failure. If you find that your name has been absolutely consistent in form and spelling for generations, you are one lucky individual! You should forget genealogy and head for Las Vegas.

In trying to deal with name variations, maybe the best practical suggestion is to try to learn a little about how Polish is pronounced.  You don’t need to become fluent in the language, and you don’t even need to pronounce it perfectly. If you can just develop a basic notion how names sound, you have a better chance of understanding how they changed. More often than not, mangled spellings can be traced back to people’s efforts to write down what they were hearing. Most Americans have a hard time pronouncing and spelling Polish names, so there was a lot of room for error, even if everyone involved was trying to get the names right. If you know, the Polish name DZIĘGEL (with a hook or tail under the first E) is pronounced a lot like our word “jingle,” you won’t be thrown if that name morphs into JINGLE, as it often did in America.

Now, sometimes you find that names were changed in ways that can’t possibly be predicted. I’ve heard of cases where someone with a long Polish name like WOJCIECHOWICZ had his name changed by his boss at work. The boss would say, “Look, you, I can’t spell or pronounce your name. If you want to be paid, from now on your name is Jones.  You got a problem with that?” And since the immigrant usually needed the job more than he needed his name, he’d shrug and say, “OK, boss.” Just like that, Władysław Wojciechowicz turns into Joe Jones. You have to do really outstanding research not to be thrown off the track by that twist!

When it comes to immigrants and their name changes, I’ve seen four basic scenarios:

1) The immigrant knew how to read and write his name and was stubborn about holding onto it, so it remained unchanged. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Poles can sometimes be a teensy bit stubborn! So some immigrants’ names survived with little or no mangling, despite the worst their new neighbors could do.

2) The immigrant needed to find a way to get along, and realized his foreign-sounding name was getting in the way, so he changed it to an American name that sounded kind of similar. Someone named Mieczysław might choose to go by Mitchell because it sounded American and had an M sound, and a CH, and an L sound, kind of like his original name. If you’ve grown up answering to “Mieczysław,” it might be easer to get used to answering to Mitchell than, say, Butch. There’s just enough continuity of sound with the old name. This is not unique to Poles, by the way; there are jillions of cases where people of all different nationalities did the same thing.

3) Despite the best efforts of all concerned, the name was butchered, often past recognition. In this case, the Americanized version might retain nothing more than the same 1st letter, if that. If you have the Americanized form, you can’t reconstruct the original form; but once research tells you what the original form was, you may be able to backtrack and grasp how and why it was changed.

4) Immigrants got sick and tired of spelling and pronouncing their names, only to have them mangled. So they said “To hell with it” and junked their old names, choosing something short and easy for Americans to handle. A WOJTALEWICZ in Chicago might become WRIGLEY because he passed a sign advertising Wrigley gum and thought, “Hey, that’s a good American name.” Or the change might not have been their choice, as in the case I mentioned earlier about the boss laying down the law.

It’s worth noting that when they did change their names, immigrants often went for a clean break. For many of them, it hurt too much to remember the old country. All that was in the past, over and done with — so why not be a new man, with a new name? The basic law in England and the U.S. (at least until recently) has always been that you can call yourself anything you like, as long as you’re not trying to evade the police. So immigrants didn’t need to file any kind of papers about a formal name change, and usually did not. They went by a new name, and that was that. More often than not, when their children or grandchildren asked about any aspect of life in the old country, they clammed up, because they’d closed that door and had no intention of reopening it. I KNOW many people have told me that’s how it was in their families! This could extend to names as well.

As you can imagine, for a genealogist, scenarios 1 and 2 are fairly easy to work with. Number 3 is tough. Number 4 is impossible — the only way you’ll figure it out is if you do some very good, thorough research. It also doesn’t hurt to get lucky.

Stay tuned for Part 2 in which Fred will discuss surname “rules” and the worst misspellings of Polish names he’s encountered! Later this week, in Parts 3 and 4 we’ll talk about translating records and tips for reading difficult handwriting.

Update, September 1, 2008 – The 4-part series is complete, so here are the links to each segment of our Interview with William F. Hoffman:

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