Why and when did surnames start to be used in Poland?

Surname – today it’s nothing special, just another distinguishing feature of each of us. It helps us identify and gives us identity and belonging. But we know very well that it wasn’t always like that. How were the names created, when and why?

The main reason was the increasing population. The more people there were, the more difficult it was to identify them – especially in expanding cities. It took more than that to know which one was Bartosz or Marcin. The first surnames began to be used to distinguish people in terms of where they came from, their father’s name, or a distinguishing feature. This is how, for example, Maciej from Miechów, Marcin Wadowita and Zawisza Czarny appear in the pages of history.

When did the first surnames appear?

The history of surnames dates back to relatively recent times – the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries. It was then that – regardless of origin – every person had a first and last name. The first of them, however, began to appear much earlier, already in the 16th century and were associated with the representatives of the nobility.

How were the oldest surnames created?

The distinction of surnames by origin comes to the foreground.

Noble families had surnames already in the 16th century. They were most often created by adding the suffix -ski or -cki. How surnames evolved or simply what they were created from can be divided here into three groups:

  • From the name or nickname of the father – e. g. Petrus Szymanowic, Nicolaus Falk,
  • From common words that turn into surnames, for example Broda, Sęk, Białek
  • From the name of the village – the famous Potocki family, whose name was derived from Potok (Potok – Potocki)

It is worth emphasizing here that not every person with a surname ending in the above mentioned endings has noble descent. Very often the peasants living in the areas belonging to a particular nobleman carried his surname to emphasize their belonging.

The first bourgeois surnames were formed at about the same time as those of the nobility.
The distinctive feature here will be an appropriate indication of the profession – Kowalski, Szewczyk, Cieślak – or the office held. However, patronymic forms were also often created – Rymarzowic, Balwierzowic, etc. Surnames ending in -ak, -ek, -ec, -ik, -yk, -ewicz and -owicz have this character.

Peasant surnames appear in documents sporadically from the 15th century. They came into permanent use at the turn of the 17th and 18th centuries. However, they often changed from generation to generation, arising from nicknames or epithets. The gradual blurring of social differences, however, led to population mixing and the emergence of new surnames. Following Professor Kazimierz Rymut, we can distinguish four different groups of current surnames:

  • Surnames equal to common words – Cichocki, Wysocki
  • Surnames equal to first names – Szymański, Jankowski, Jakubowski
  • Surnames equal to geographical names – Mazur, Borkowski
  • The suffixes that make up surnames – that is, -ski, -cki, -icz, -ak, among others.  

And how was it with the women’s surnames?

The history of the women is not as extensive as that of the male sex, as is well known.
Until the middle of the 20th century it was customary for every woman to have a male ‘guardian’. Therefore, it should not surprise anyone that women’s names took a different form in relation to their father’s name.

For each wife the endings -owa, -ina, -yna, -ka were added to her husband’s name.
For example: Jaskier – Jaskrowa, Głowacki – Głowacka, Pierz – Pierzyna.

On the other hand, the surnames for the daughters were created by adding the suffix -ówna,
-anka, -onka. Forms such as Jaskier – Jaskierówna, Głowacki – Głowackówna,
Pierz – Pierzanka were created.

It is safe to say that the history of our country has never been peaceful. Lack of succession, wars, free elections, partitions and wars again. Since the beginnings of the Polish state, hordes of various people have swept through our lands and their names have gradually been polonized or phonetically transformed. Hence, among Poles we have the surnames Bohosiewicz (Armenian), Goldberg (Jewish) or Shmit (German).

Photos (source): Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe

Paula Polak

Paula Polak