Wednesday, July 3, 2019

"Vel" is to Polish as "Dit" is to French?

Attempting to research the family history of my mystery grandfather—the man known by his grandchildren as John McCann who turned out arriving in New York with a name far more Polish than Irish—has been a challenge. A hopeful sign that I might soon break through that brick wall is the recent arrival of a handful of DNA matches which can only connect with the line of the erstwhile Theodore Puchalski.

All of those DNA matches to my paternal grandfather's line happen to contain the surname Michalski. As I mentioned yesterday, knowing that fact—even the documentation showing they all landed in Wisconsin—is not entirely comforting. After all, once I tried my hand at the Polish search engine called Herby, I realized that the Poles really seem to like the surname Michalski. As of 1990, there were over fifty thousand people all over Poland sporting that surname.

Herby, however, left me a parting tidbit. In addition to the entry showing me the forty nine provinces containing residents with that Michalski surname, there was a second entry. This second line showed me that there were a mere twenty two additional people in one solitary province who all had a special form of the surname Michalski: it was called Michalski vel Michalak.

Perhaps that name may sound like gibberish to you, but I perked up when I spotted that second line. I had seen something like that before, in a Michalski tree of one of my DNA matches. When I had first seen it, I thought maybe it was a mistake, or a researcher's way of saying, "I'm not sure which one is the right surname." The entry had two names: Michalski and Michalek.

Similar names, admittedly, and one could have been the result of a documentation error, or the effect of reading sloppy handwriting. That, at least, would be the type of assumption an American like me might make. But here it was now—at least a similar version in the entry for "Michalski vel Michalak"—and I couldn't just walk away from it. Perhaps if only because of the virtue of capturing that family location in one specific province—Łódź—I had to pursue the reason why it was showing up.

Just in case there might be something to this, I ran the thing through Google translate. Perhaps "vel" was a specific word in Polish. And there was a result for my efforts, but all the screen told me was "aka." Written just like that.

Of course, by this time, you may be screaming "A. K. A." for my lack of insight, but you know me: I have to make sure of things. So I kept plodding along, looking for answers.

I wondered whether "vel" in Polish might be a way to handle names the same way the French in Canada would use the convention, "dit." In French, "dit" means "called," and "dit names" could signify two different surnames, both of which might be used by a family (or sometimes, alternately used).

I put my little hypothesis to the test, and searched for information on how the Polish use "vel" names. Along the way, I found a wealth of details on how very differently the Polish handle the use of surnames—much more than the little factoid I already knew about the masculine and feminine form of Polish surnames. Eventually, that led to the answer to my question about "vel." Yes, as it turns out, you can think of "vel" names much the same as a French Canadian of the 1800s might have used "dit names." "Vel" apparently comes from the Latin, and signifies an alias—for instance, if a soldier having participated in an uprising wanted to evade authorities, yet otherwise retain both identities.

Of course, you know finding a detail like that will not help my research progress. Now I'll have to figure out just why those Michalski vel Michalak scoundrels had to assume a double identity.


  1. I learn something every time I read your blog.

    1. It's been a learning experience for me, as well, Miss Merry. I've always heard the phrase, learn by doing; in this case, I'm also doing by learning. I couldn't otherwise even take one step forward in this journey!


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