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 4th 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.]