Friday, October 18, 2019

A -ski, a -ska, a Skeptic

The question is: for Polish surnames, is using the "-ski" optional?

In asking the question, yesterday, about the chances that a Polish immigrant born with a -ski suffix to his surname would see it as no problem, in his adopted American home, to drop the -ski, I meant to delve so much farther into surnames than the traditional shift from -ski for males to -ska for females. I'm wondering how often an immigrant would consider drop the suffix entirely.

To satisfy myself with an answer, I went hunting online for assurances. In the process, I gained a few insights into Polish surnames—and names in general—from a variety of sources.

First, let's address my observation that, in Poland, it seemed the same person might show up in subsequent records with a different form of the same name. One time, the church record might spell the name, Latin style. Another time, it might seem that the priest writing the record must have been German. My eyes were not deceiving me: what I saw as a father's name of Johann Zegarski was probably an artifact of the priest originating from a German background; that name would show up in other entries—coupled with the same wife's name—with his first name given as Jan, the preferred Polish variant. A researcher can, indeed, expect to see records from Poland showing traces of spelling from four different languages: Latin, Polish, German, or even Russian.

As for surnames, their history, according to several sources, seemed to follow the same script. Names ending in "-ski" could have meant the person was of noble ancestry. Or not; as the adoption of surnames spread throughout the region, eventually even peasants living on a noble's land might take on his surname, despite sharing absolutely no relationship.

A number of resources mentioned that the suffix "-ski" means "from." Checking with the ever-present Google Translate, that didn't seem to be the case, but perhaps this information is from a historic perspective. At any rate, when I found a website with listings of specific surnames—incredibly, including the surname Puchalski, a variant of the name I had found my grandfather claiming in Brooklyn—it identified that surname as being a "habitational name" for a person from any location with a name like Puchały.

Never one to take others' word for it, I went looking. The one village I found named Puchały seemed rather far from Czarnylas, as did one with the similar name of Puchałowo. Of course, there may be other villages with the same name which have disappeared over the centuries. This may be time to employ a reliable historical gazetteer.

Then, too, as Kimberly Powell noted, "While you might think such surnames could lead you to your ancestral village, often that's not the case."

Seeing surnames—especially habitational surnames—from the vantage point of history reminds me of an online exchange I had read, nearly thirty years ago. It was on one of those special interest group forums founded in the wake of America Online (remember AOL?) which was dedicated to researching Polish ancestry. One reader had suggested checking out a book by Fred Hoffman on Polish surnames.

At the time, I had made a mental note to take care of that later...and then promptly forgot about it. Now, I need that book, and feverishly made my way online to see if it was still available. It is: for a song and a dance and a mere $135 or so. Thankfully, I subsequently discovered not only the updated edition, but the fact that a two-volume duo is sold by the Polish Genealogical Society of America.

All that being said, I'm still not sure that Anna Zegar would be the same person as Anastasia Zegarska, or that Thomas or Tomasz Puchała would have a son named Theodore who, while removing the "-ska" from his mother's surname, would add a "-ski" to his own.  


  1. I am currently researching a Polish family as well. Eons ago a wealthy Pole owned land and the resulting village was named Radwan. When the use of a surname came up it became Radwanski 'city of Radwan'. I also read that 'ska' is the feminine version.
    All that is well and good except for the finding that it is never spelled twice the same in American records. haha. The only way I found them in the 1910 census was to go line by line until I came upon Arabonsky. All the members of the household; names, ages, occupation etc. were the family I was looking for and matched the 1920 census.
    No 'enter last name' in the world would have come up with that.
    I love this hobby.

    1. Gayle, it is crazy how our ancestors' surnames were sometimes written. It sure takes patience to go through a census, line by line, page by page, but I'm glad you found them! I guess that is what they mean by "exhaustive search," eh?

  2. nobility...interesting take:)

    1. Well, I wouldn't take that one to the bank, exactly, but at least for some, it apparently was true.


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