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Surname Origins

Basic Explanation of Surname Endings


The -ski is an adjectival suffix, which can be added directly to a stem -- as piekarski means "of the baker (piekarz)" -- or can be compounded with other suffixes. Two common suffixes that can precede -ski are: 1) -ew- or -ow- (basically the same thing, dependent on whether the stem ends in a consonant classified as hard or soft); and 2) -in- or -ien- or -yn. The -yn is added to stems ending in hard consonants, the other two added to "soft" stems; for all intents and purposes, -ien- can be regarded as a variant of -in-, often indicating some dialect difference in pronunciation. Both prefixes have a possessive meaning, so that -owski/-ewski and -i[e]nski/-ynski mean "of the _'s." In the suffix combinations -inski and -ynski the N is softened and spelled with an accent, which I render on-line as ń (-iński and -yński). We also see these suffixes added to names without -ski, so that Jan means "John" and Janów means "of John," and Russian Stalin means "[man] of steel" (stal'). We see places called Janów, which just means "[place] of John." Suffixes can also be added to those suffixes, so that we also see Janowo, also meaning "[place] of John," and Lipiny, "[place] of the lindens" (from lipa, "linden").

I believe Slavic linguists have written articles on when and why -ew-/-ow- is added in some cases, and -in-/-yn- in others, but that gets into complicated issues that are best left only to those who want to study Slavic linguistics in a serious way. The bottom line is that once either set of suffixes -ow/-ew and -in/-yn has been added to a stem to form a place name X, the suffix -ski can be further added to them to mean, in effect, "one from X."

Thus kowal is "smith," Kowalew or Kowalewo is "[place] of the smith," and Kowalewski is "one from the place of the smith." Or lipa is "linden," Lipiny is "place of the lindens," and Lipiński is "one from the place of the lindens." Incidentally, we see the -in/-yn suffix added sometimes without the preceding vowel, yielding names such as Lipno, also meaning "place of the lindens"; this place name, too, can yield the surname Lipiński. These processes are very common in Polish surname formation.

These suffix complexes -ewski/-owski and -iński/-yński can also be added directly to nouns sometimes to simply indicate a connection. Thus Łomża is the name of a major town in Poland, and łomżyński is an adjectival form meaning "of Łomża." So surnames ending in these suffixes don't always have to refer to place names. More often than not they do, but they don't have to.

You might notice that there's considerable overlap in meaning between, say, Janów [kin or place of John] and Janowski [kin of John or one from John's place]. In fact, we sometimes see both names used, and in older records a family may appear with the forms used interchangeably. In more modern times the -ski forms have tended to predominate; but there are Poles named Janów. As with any aspect of onomastics, it doesn't pay to make flat generalizations -- almost anything you say that is correct most of the time can have glaring exceptions.


* I'm A -SKI, I Must Be Noble! *

Again and again I hear "Someone told me names ending in -ski are noble. Is that true?" I've responded so often I'm sick of the whole subject. Still, it's a legitimate question, so let's start with it.

If you're talking about names found in records from, say, the 14th century, then yes, names ending in -ski were borne by nobles. So were names ending in -owicz, or -ik, or whatever suffix you care to mention. Back then, all surnames were noble! In other words, only nobles used surnames.

It wasn't until much later that non-nobles began using surnames regularly -- generally not until the 16th or 17th centuries. It's hard to be absolutely certain of the dates because there are very few records before the 1600s that mentioned non-nobles at all; so we have don't have much evidence as to when the practice of bearing unchanging, hereditary names spread to the middle class and the peasants. But by and large, most scholars agree that peasants seldom used surnames before the 1600s; there are exceptions to every rule, but this one is pretty reliable.

So at one time -ski indicated nobility. But that ceased to be true, oh, a good 300-400 years ago. When the use of surnames of any sort stopped being exclusive to nobles, so did the forms of the names themselves.

What does -ski mean? In Polish it's an adjectival suffix, meaning simply "of, from, connected with, pertaining to." The form X-ski is an all-purpose way of saying "somehow associated with X." Thus Warszawa means "Warsaw," and Warszawski means "of Warsaw." The noun piekarz means "baker," and the adjective piekarski means "of the baker, the baker's."

In surnames, X-ski usually began as a short way of indicating some close connection with X. Thus Piekarski would generally mean either "kin of the baker," or "one from the place of the baker." There are subsets of the -ski names that are especially likely to refer to place of origin -- we'll look a them in a minute -- but clearly a name such as Warszawski would mean "one from Warsaw," or in a broader sense, "one connected with Warsaw in some way clear enough that calling this guy Warszawski makes sense." Similarly Bydgoski, literally "of Bydgoszcz," would mean "one from Bydgoszcz, one connected with Bydgoszcz."

Please notice: when -ski is added to a noun, a letter or two at the end of the noun may disappear: Piekarz -> Piekarski, Warszawa -> Warszawski. Sometimes the change is even greater, as in Bydgoszcz -> Bydgoski, Zamość -> Zamojski. Poles tended to add -ski to what they regarded as the base form of the noun in question, and clear away final suffixes or consonant combinations that weren't essential parts of the name.

The practical consequence of this is that a lot of -ski names referring to places are ambiguous; they may refer to a number of different places with names derived from the same base form. Thus you can't be positive Warszawski must refer to the capital of Poland. There may be another place, or two, or five, with names beginning Warszaw-; the surname, by itself, gives no clue which one it's referring to in a given instance. There's a Warszawa in former Zamość province; there's a Warszawice in Siedlce province; there's a Warszawiaki in former Lublin province; and a Warszawskie Przedmieście in Elbląg province. It is POSSIBLE the surname Warszawski could refer to any of them.

Obviously most of the time Warszawski would refer to the nation's capital. My point is that you can't take that for granted! The moment you assume that, it will surely turn out YOUR Warszawski was the one in 100 who came from Warszawa in Zamość province. That's why even surnames that refer to place names MUST be interpreted in light of a specific family's history -- it's the only way to make sure you're focusing on the right place.

Of course, a lot of -ski names don't refer to places at all. Piekarski might refer to a place named Piekary or something similar; but most of the time it probably started out meaning "the baker's kin." Kowalski would usually mean "the smith's kin" (from kowal, "smith"). Szczepański would usually mean "kin of Szczepan (Stephen)." Nosalski can mean simply "kin of the big-nose" (nosal). This suffix can be added to all kinds of roots, whether they refer to a ancestor's place of residence or origin, his occupation, his first name, his most obvious physical feature, and so on.

-SKI vs. -SKA

As basic as this is, I still get asked a lot: why does my great-grandmother's name end in -ska? The answer is simple: Polish adjectives have different forms for the genders. Surnames ending in -ski are regarded as adjectives, so they, too, reflect gender with different endings. Thus Janowski is the nominative form for a male; Janowska is the same form for a female. The endings differ in the other cases, too: "of Janowski" is Janowskiego if referring to a male, Janowskiej if referring to a female. But the nominative forms are the ones we encounter the most, and you can save yourself some wear and tear if you just realize that X-ska normally means "Miss X-ski" or "Mrs. X-ski."

Now nothing's ever too simple, and there is one factor that can throw a wrench into the works: names derived from nouns than end with -ska, e. g., deska, "board," maska, "mask," troska, "care, worry." These have to be handled on a case-by-case basis. But the rule of thumb is as stated above. When you see -ska, replace the -a with -i and you'll usually have what we regard as the standard form of the name.

-CKI and -ZKI

What about names ending in -cki/-cka and -zki/-zka? Essentially, these are just variants of -ski/-ska. Certain words end with consonants that, when combined with the basic ending -ski, produced a pronunciation change. Thus Zawadzki comes from zawada, "obstruction, fortress" + -ski. The final -a in zawada drops off, giving Zawadski. But it's hard to say -d- followed by an -s- (notice, in "gods" or "wads" or "lads" we always pronounce that final -s as a -z). Zawadzki seemed the more accurate way to spell this name.

But, just to complicate things, the combination -dz- in that instance is actually pronounced like -ts-, which Poles write with the letter -c-. So Zawacki is another way of spelling that same name. Either way, Zawadzki or Zawacki, it's pronounced roughly "zah-VAHT-skee," and just means "of the obstruction or fortress," or "from the place called Zawada or Zawady because at one time there was an obstruction or fortress there."

My advice is, treat -cki and -zki as variations of -ski. You don't really need to know why they're spelled differently. It's enough to recognize the difference, note the spelling variation, and move on.

-SKI vs. -SKY

Lord, am I sick of this one! People are always asking things like "If it's spelled -sky, isn't that a Jewish name?" or "Can I conclude my Jablonsky was Czech instead of Polish?"

Historically the spellings of Eastern European surnames have varied so much -- even back home in Europe, let alone in North America -- that you can't lay out a hard and fast rule for this -ski/-sky business. The rule of thumb, however, is that -ski usually is associated with Poles; -sky may be associated with Czechs, Ukrainians, Russians, etc. There are jillions of exceptions, but if you want a basic rule to go by, that's it.

That's because Polish spelling rules say -k- can never be followed by -y, only by -i. Well, Poles arrived in this country writing their names in the same alphabet we use. Some of the special Polish letters caused problems, but the -ski ending was easy enough to copy and use. So as a rule Poles tended to spell their names -ski even after they came to America.

Religion was not really a factor. Jews tended to use whatever spelling was regarded as correct where they lived. As I say, in Polish -sky is incorrect, -ski is correct, so Jews living among Poles usually spelled it -ski. Jews living among Czechs spelled it -sky because that is correct in Czech. If they lived in what is now Belarus or Russia or Ukraine -- as millions did -- their names were written in the Cyrillic alphabet, and could be rendered in our alphabet as -ski, -sky, -skiy, -skyi, -skyj, -skij, and so on. Most often it ended up as -sky, so that spelling seems to predominate among Jewish immigrants. But there were and are plenty of Jews in America who spell their names -ski.

There seems to be a tendency among German- and English-speakers to spell this Slavic suffix as -sky, to the point that even Polish immigrants quit fighting it and accepted that spelling. I'm not sure what accounts for that tendency, but I have a theory: Czech influence. In Czech -sky (actually with an accent over the y) is the correct spelling. Over the centuries Germans have dealt a lot with Czechs, and that experience may have convinced them -sky is the right way to spell this suffix. And when Poles immigrated to the U. S., they often found sizable Czech communities already flourishing here; in many cities Poles went to Czech churches and social events, until they were numerous enough to establish their own. Since the Czechs had come first, and the Poles often mixed with them, it's understandable that Americans became familiar with the Czech spelling first, and regarded it as standard. That may explain why, in Europe and especially in America, the -sky often shows up in instances where it was not "correct."


This suffix simply means "son of." Here, too, the difference between -owicz and -ewicz is of no great importance to non-linguists; some names tend to show up with one or the other, and some show up with both. But the basis meaning of X-owicz or X-ewicz is "son of X."

What happened here is that the possessive ending -ow/-ew had the suffix -icz tacked onto it. That suffix -icz or -ycz is how Poles once said "son of," so that "son of Jan" was Janicz or Janycz; "son of Kuba" was Kubicz or Kubycz. But as time went on the Poles were influenced by the tendency of other Slavs to use -owicz or -ewicz instead of plain -icz.

By the way, -owicz is just the Polish way of spelling the suffix we see in many other Slavic names as -ovich or -oviĉ (the so-called haĉek in Czech). The spelling varies from language to language, but it almost always means "son of."


Suffixes with a -k- generally began as diminutives. In other words, Jan is the Polish form of "John," and Janek or Janko is much like "Johnny." English, however, typically has only a couple of diminutive suffixes, -y or -ie. Polish (and the other Slavic languages) have tons of them. Most have a -k- in there somewhere, or the-k- has been modified by the addition of further suffixes (e. g., -czak, -czyk). As a rule, in surnames a suffix with -k- means something like "little" or "son of."

Thus Jan is "John," Janek or Janko is "little John, Johnny," Jankowicz is "son of little John," Jankowo is "[the place] of little John" (or "of John's son"), and Jankowski is "from the place of little John or John's son." You see how different suffixes can combine to add layers of meaning to the basic name?

The original usage of these suffixes was to indicate a diminutive form. But they also came to be used in other ways, usually meaning "associated with, related to, exhibiting the quality of." Nowak comes from nowy, "new" + -ak, to mean "new guy in town," and Stasik means "one associated with Staś" = "kin of Staś."

Also, these suffixes were often added to nouns to serve as a term for a person or object perceived as related to whatever the base root meant. Thus Bartek started as a nickname from Bartłomiej (Bartholomew), and meant "little Bart, son of Bart." But once Bartek existed as a name, it could come to be used more loosely as the noun bartek, which means "yokel, peasant, hick from the sticks." This happened because folks perceived Bartek as a name popular primarily among people in rural areas, so it came to be used as a common noun for such a person. We have done similar things in English; you might refer to a redneck in general as a "Billy Bob" or any other name perceived as common among rural folk.

Similarly, sowa means "owl," and sówka, literally "little owl," can be a term for a specific kind of owl, Athene noctuae. But it's also used as a term for the Noctuidae family of moths. Apparently something about those moths reminded people of little owls, and the term stuck. Thus you have to be careful when you interpret surnames with these diminutive suffixes: the "little X" may be turn out to be a term for something not readily apparent. If you trace the development of the name back far enough, you can usually see what the semantic connection was. But it's often pretty obscure until you dig deep.


Essentially, the suffix -iak is the same thing as -ak; both are diminutive suffixes, but -iak differs only in that it involves softening or palatalization of the root's final consonant. Thus in some names we see -ak added directly to a root with no palatalization, e. g., Nowak, Pawlak; and in others we see the palatalization, e. g., Dorota + -iak = Dorociak, Jakub + -iak = Jakubiak, Szymon + -iak = Szymoniak.

The basic meaning of -ak/-iak is diminutive, but especially when applied to first names, it tends to have a patronymic significance. Thus "Jakubiak" means "little Jakub," but much the same way as if someone saw me walk by and said "There's Fred" (Fred's my middle name and it's the one I go by, I hope this isn't too confusing!) and then a moment later my son toddled along and he said "There goes little Fred," i. e., "Fred's son." So in most cases where -ak/-iak is appended to the root of a first name we can translate it as "son of." However, it's not used exclusively in that way, for instance there is a noun "Krakowiak" which means "one from Krakow." Polish suffixes rarely have one and only one meaning (unfortunately; life would be much easier if they did!).


I'm not sure why sometimes the suffix is added with palatalization and why it's not. No doubt Polish linguists have addressed this very question, and somewhere in my sources there is probably a learned article on this very subject. But I can't find it at the moment -- and besides, to make sense of it one would probably need a Ph.D. in Slavic historical linguistics. I think it suffices for our purposes to say that the suffix can be added either way, without palatalization (Pawel + -ak = Pawlak) or with it; and if it's added with palatalization, that is indicated either by interposing an -i- (Jakub + -i- + ak) or by modifying the root's final consonant (Dorota + -ak to Doroti- + -ak to Doroci- + -ak = Dorociak). There are ways to tell which final root consonants add -i- and which change the letter, but again, this is probably more information than you want!


Finally, these suffixes differ from the others I've mentioned in that they're not intrinsic parts of the surnames. Jankowski is a different name from Jankowicz; Jankowiczowa is not a different surname from Jankowicz, but merely a special form of it. These suffixes all mark feminine versions of surnames that take the form of nouns, not of adjectives ending in -ski or -cki or -zki. To arrive at the standard form of the name you have to remove the suffix (and sometimes add an ending): Jankowiczowa = Mrs. Jankowicz, Kościuszkowa = Mrs. Kościuszko.

In standard Polish -owa or -ewa indicates a married woman, and -ówna/-ewna an unmarried one. As I said, Jankowiczowa is Mrs. Jankowicz, but Jankowiczówna is Miss Jankowicz; Kowalewa = Mrs. Kowal, Kowalewna = Miss Kowal. In records we often see -ówna/-ewna forms as maiden names.

The suffixes -ina/-yna are added to noun-derived names ending in -a, and usually indicate a married woman; the corresponding form for unmarried women was -anka or -ianka (sometimes -onka or -ionka). So Mrs. Zaręba is "pani Zarębina," and Miss Zaręba is "panna Zarębianka."

I must add, however, that in regional dialects you sometimes see -anka or -onka added to adjectival surnames, and even used for any female, so that a Mrs. Kowalski might appear as "Kowalszczanka." That is not correct in mainstream Polish; but you may run into in records from some regions, especially northeastern and southeastern Poland.

Copyright © 2000 W.F. Hoffman. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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