A common Pole usually has two or three names in total: a first name (of Slavic or Catholic origin), a middle name (usually of Catholic origin, so to give its bearer a patron saint to protect him) and, finally, a last name - like, for example, Anna Maria Krakowska. It is not uncommon for women to have two last names as well (keeping their maiden name and adding on their husband’s surname), but the Polish law forbids going beyond that. It’s up to parents to decide about the surname of their child, but the custom is to adopt the one that belongs to your father - in other words, they are hereditary and often paternal.
When it comes to the last names, Polish surnames are easy to spot due to the fact that most of them end with the suffix -ski or -cki, but also typical Slavic -icz and other similar variations meaning “of”. Of something, of someone or of someplace. For people of different linguistic backgrounds, at first sight, they seem to be totally unpronounceable because of the complexity of the Polish language - in all honesty, it isn’t the easiest language to learn. Every Pole has seen the YouTube clip from a film called How I Unleashed World War II, where this fact is made fun of when Grzegorz Brzęczyszczykiewicz introduces himself to a Gestapo officer. There even is a meme saying to praise the Poles for making a language out of the last few letters of the alphabet - that’s how complicated the language looks to others.
The origin of Polish surnames can be toponymic (meaning that it derived from a place in connection to the person bearing it), patronymic or matronymic (a family given name) or cognominal (derived from a person’s nickname in connection to the physical or character trait, but, most commonly, a profession they held). Last names have only become obligatory in the last 200 years of the Polish history, meaning that people used to find other practical names to know people apart. First Polish last names became known during the Middle Ages, and were reserved for nobility only, as it was important to know exactly who your ancestors and descendants were, or to mark the land the family owned. In the 13th century, more and more people began adapting surnames as a form of fashion but it wasn’t until about the 19th century that common people began adapting names in regards to ‘’of’’.
It is important to note that Polish surnames tend to change their suffix depending on the gender of the person bearing it: female variations will end with -ska, for example, while male end with -ski. For Polish people, this brings no confusion, just like it’s common for females to have their first names end with a letter -a, while only rare male names will ever end with an -a. Also, it is not uncommon for people to call each other by their surnames only, both formally and informally, using them as nicknames, just like it happens in the English-speaking countries.
Let’s take a look at some of the most popular Polish last names and what they stand for!
So now that you got yourself familiar with Polish surnames, next time you recognize one such last name, say: “Cześć!” (“Hello!”) to the person, and you will break the ice for a more meaningful connection with them. Because there is no doubt in the fact that the origin of each of the world’s last name is actually fascinating. There are even people who can dot down the exact history of your family, where they are from and even what you might be like, just by knowing your last name.
Do you know the background of your own last time? If not, maybe now is the right time to researchit!
A comment I frequently see on our Polish and Proud Facebook group, and one that I hear from numerous genealogy clients, is that their Polish surname was changed when their ancestors came to Ellis Island. That is a myth in genealogy; however, most people still believe it. The truth is your family's last name was most certainly not changed at Ellis Island.
Generally, errors with the immigrant's last names happened overseas. To learn more about this common myth, check out this article from Smithsonian magazine.