Interview with William F. Hoffman: Part 1 – Encountering Polish Names

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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One thought on “Interview with William F. Hoffman: Part 1 – Encountering Polish Names

  1. Terrific idea to interview Fred, Donna! I enjoy just about anything Fred has to say about the Polish language. I own all of his books and have heard him speak at local conferences twice. I’m a big fan!

    Can’t wait to read what he has to say next!

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