With more than 38.5 million inhabitants, Poland has the seventh-largest population in Europe. Many more millions of Polish nationals and people with Polish ancestry live around the world. If you’re one of them, you might wonder about the meaning of your last name. As with the majority of European surnames, most Polish surnames fall into one of three categories: toponymic, patronymic/matronymic, and cognominal. To learn more about your family name, read on.
Toponymic last names are typically derived from a geographical or topographical location. For instance, some names are derived from the homestead where the first bearer of that name and his family lived. In the case of nobility, surnames were often taken from the names of familial estates.
Other place names that were adapted into surnames include towns, countries, and even geographical features. While you might think such surnames could lead you to your ancestral village, often that’s not the case. This is because, over the course of history, many places in Poland have shared the same name, while other locales have changed names over time, were subdivisions of a local village or estate too small to be found on a map—or simply disappeared altogether.
Surnames ending in the letters owski usually derive from place names ending with y, ow, owo, or owa.
Example: Cyrek Gryzbowski, meaning Cyrek from the town of Gryzbow.
Patronymic and Matronymic Surnames
Surnames in this category are usually derived from the first name of a male ancestor, although some are derived from the first name of a wealthy or well-respected female ancestor. Such surnames with suffixes such as icz, wicz, owicz, ewicz, and ycz usually mean “son of.”
As a rule, Polish surnames that include a suffix with the letter k (czak, czyk, iak, ak, ek, ik, and yk) have a similar meaning which translates to either “little” or “son of.” The same is true for the suffixes yc and ic, which are most commonly found in names of eastern Polish origin.
Examples: Pawel Adamicz, meaning Paul, son of Adam; Piotr Filipek, meaning Peter, son of Philip.
There are two basic types of cognominal surnames. The first category encompasses names that are based on a person’s occupation. Some of the most common occupational surnames are derived from what were traditionally the most prominent professions in Polish society throughout history. These include blacksmith (Kowalski), tailor (Krawczyk), innkeeper (Kaczmarek), carpenter (Cieślak), wheelwright (Kołodziejski), and cooper (Bednarz).
Example: Michał Krawiec, meaning Michael the tailor.
Descriptive surnames, on the other hand, were often derived from nicknames or pet names that highlighted either a physical attribute or personality trait of the original name bearer.
Example: Jan Wysocki, meaning Tall John.
50 Common Polish Last Names
Surnames with the ski suffix and its cognates cki and zki make up almost 35 percent of the 1,000 most popular Polish names. The presence of these suffixes almost always denotes Polish origin. The most common Polish surnames are listed below.