Friday, July 27, 2007

Book Review: Polish Surnames: Origins and Meanings

Book Review by Robert Postula

POLISH SURNAMES: ORIGINS AND MEANINGS (Second Edition), by William F. Hoffman, 580 pages, 6 x 9 inches perfect bound, published in 1997, ISBN 0-924207-04-3. Available from the Polish Genealogical Society of Michigan, Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library, 5201 Woodward Ave., Detroit, Ml 48202. $27.00 postage paid.

This is an updated version of Mr. Hoffman’s original effort and contains nearly TWICE as many surnames as the First Edition. The first half consists of 12 chapters explaining the origins and meanings of Polish surnames. It explains that there are twelve surname root indexes, however for convenience they have been combined into five categories. The book dedicates a chapter to each of the five. However Part II of the book still sorts by the twelve sources.

The second half is an index of some 30,000 common surnames, organized by the roots they came from, with indication of how many Polish citizens bore each surname as of 1990.

Hoffman explains that the use of surnames transitioned society from a one name society, to a two name society when the use of surnames was introduced and many Polish names are not Polish in origin at all, but ultimately German, Russian Czech, Ukrainian, Latin, Greek, Italian, French, Belarussian, Lithuanian, Yiddish, or Hebrew origin , and that’s only a partial list. To understand a Polish name, you must recognize the name’s root and distinguish it from the suffixes that follow it. However, there are not always suffixes present, but there usually is at least one.

"Instead I decided to devote the book’s first half to explaining how surnames were formed and given examples of how name-roots and suffixes combined: the second half would list the most common surnames, organized by their roots."

These educated guesses "will make the book far less useful for serous scholars, but this book is not primarily for them; it’s for dedicated amateurs who don’t speak Polish, don’t have the resources to conduct or commission in-depth research but would like to gain some insight as to what their names might mean and how they might have arisen".

Surnames are formed based on patronymics, toponyms, suffixes, nicknames, foreign suffixes, trades/occupations, professions, positions, and use of first names as last names. Eamples are given on how a single root can become different surnames based on its combination with suffixes. Sometimes multiple roots are combined with suffixes. Open your eyes to the many, many trees, animals, etc. which may have been used as a basis for your surname.

Jews had a different way of using surnames as each generation formed, the surname changed. Many Jewish names sound German because Yiddish is a dialect of the German language. Hoffman notes that this second edition corrects errors introduced on Jewish naming conventions used in the first edition.

Detailed complexities on Lithuanian name endings. Influence of Belarusian, Ukrainian and Russian.

As Poles became assimilated into American Society, Polish people became tired of fighting peoples inability to pronounce their names correctly. Names were influenced by handwriting, foreign interpretation, and grammar amongst other influences, i.e. Sandowski became Sandusky.

This book is a perfect companion to First Names of the Polish Commonwealth: Origins & Meanings, by William F. Hoffman and George W. Helon, which is reviewed in the next post.

This article appeared in the Polish Genealogical Society of Michigan's Journal, The Polish Eaglet, January 1999, p. 36. It is reprinted here with permission from the family of Robert Postula and the PGSM.

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