How Surnames Came Into Being in Poland


During the First Rzeczpospolita (Republic of Both Nations), from the mid-1500 to 1795, (Poland’s borders included then the majority of territories of today’s Poland, a large part of the Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania and parts of Latvia and Russia ) surnames already existed, but not for everybody.

Commonwealth of Both Nations at the peak of its strength. Source: Wikimedia, author: Halibutt


They appeared only in the second half of the 18th century in Polish legal notation as an element of identification and were introduced and made obligatory by the invaders Prussia, Russia and Austria.

There are about 300 names in the Bull of Gniezno (1136), e.g., Witosza, Pozdziech, Dobek, Będziech. They were not very sophisticated but sufficient for a beginning. There were not many people then and they lived in distant settlements, towns or castles. But there were more and more of us as the years went by, so our forefathers needed to distinguish one from another and that is why they started to add nicknames.

Nicknames were created from the names of trades, places of birth, animals, plants, personal characteristics, or months. They were given to both nobility and peasants. With time the nicknames began to function as surnames, so they were recorded in documents and certificates and passed from generation to generation.

Surnames with the endings –ski or -cki were formed from place names.  Somebody living in Wola was named Wolski, another living in Łęczyca was called Łęczycki. The owner of several villages could use several surnames. It was also possible for each of two brothers who owned two different villages to have different surnames. A woman could be named after her father or husband and also from their estate name, all at the same time. When a man married, he could take the surname of his wife or just create a new one from the name of estate where they would live after marriage. Sons had also a choice. They could use the surname of their father or mother or just create a new one to which they took a fancy.

In the second half of the 15th century nicknames formed from the names of places began to disappear. Surnames ending with –ski were reserved for the nobility and from that time on, they became the most desirable. The part of the nobility that had surnames formed from nicknames changed them to those that had the proper ending -ski. This was the time when many beautiful archaic surnames, like Wierzbięta or Bochnar, disappeared. Many ambitious townspeople and peasants also wanted to have a “noble” surname ending with –ski, so they just add this ending to their surname or created new and often strange clusters e.g., Gwiazdomorski (combination of “star” and “sea”), Ruzamski (reversed surname Mazur with “essential” –ski, ending).

In the 15th century a big group of very characteristic surnames based on coats of arms was formed: Akszak herbu Akszak (the surname Akszak derives from coat of arms Akszak), Mikulicz herbu Mikulicz or Korczak herbu Korczak came into being. Nobles added this new part to their surnames to differentiate themselves from others who had the same surname but were not of the nobility. For example, one noble added Lis to Olszewscy (resulting in Lis-Olszewscy) and another added Nowina to Konopkowie (resulting in Nowina-Konopkowie) to set themselves apart from townspeople or peasants called Olszewscy or Konopkowie.


Coat of arms Akszak. Source: Wikimedia, Author: Tadeusz Gajl.


Near the end of the 16th century churches began to keep parish documents in accordance with the decisions of the Council of Trent (1545-1563). This practice contributed to the stabilization of the surnames of the nobility, townspeople and peasants.

The first documents that established and confirmed surnames were indygenats (from Latin indigenatio – citizen right, in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth this document provided recognition of noble status for a foreigner) and ennoblements (conferring of nobility). It was on the occasion of writing out those documents or confirming nobility (a procedure required by legal acts from 1603 and 1613) that surnames were sometimes changed by their owners to those that they thought sounded better.

The obligation of keeping parish registers was started by the Council of Trent on November 11, 1563. At the beginning only marriage registers were kept. This reform was introduced slowly in Poland, first in the church province of Lwów, next in the province of Poznań. In Poland it was during the Synod in Piotrków (1607) when the requirement for the clergy to keep registers of baptisms, confirmations, marriages, those taking communion on Easter and the Status Animarum (list of  the faithful) was introduced. Sometime after 1631 the custom of keeping registers of baptisms, marriages and deaths became widespread. However, in some parishes, registers of confirmations, confessions during Easter and lists of the faithful continue to be kept even today.  In the second half of the 18th century the procedure of making copies of the registers and delivering them to the District Courts was introduced. It is worthy to add that in some Polish parishes registers were introduced even before the Council of Trent: e.g., marriage registers have been kept  in the Mariacki Church in Cracow since 1548, in Stanin in the Siedlce region since1550, and in Bochnia (near Cracow) since 1559.

Peasants still did not have surnames until the partitions; until the turn of the 19th century they had only first names and sometimes nicknames.
The 19th century was the time of stabilization of surnames. Censuses took place and parish registers were reformed. Usually existing surnames or nicknames were legalized or new surnames were created for those who did not have one.

The process of the legitimization of the nobility was carried out during the partition according to rules set by the invaders. Some Polish nobility lost their rights, because of the lack of proper documents or money, or just their inability to follow the complicated formalities required by law.

Some families took advantage of changes in the law and „adopted” to old coats of arms and surnames. Shrewd lawyers called witnesses who created false lineages. That was the case of Mikołaj Mickiewicz, a lawyer from Nowogródek and the father of the Polish national bard, Adam Mickiewicz. Taking an opportunity he created false lineages for his family and for the family of his wife Barbara née Majewska. Thanks to him, many generations of researchers have tried to solve the problem of whether the Mickiewicz family was really noble and if Majewski family members were really neophytes (converted into Christianity).

In the 20th century surnames were – in principle – permanent. However, they were sometimes changed because of an undesirable tone – vulgar or folk – and sometimes just because of snobbery.
An interesting group of newly created surnames, which you will not encounter anywhere else in the world, are the so-called “war surnames”. Many underground soldiers had nicknames. After independence had been regained, the Polish parliament (in 1921) consented to add the sobriquet from the war times to the soldier’s existing surname. That is how such surnames as Orlicz-Dreszer, Rydz-Śmigły, Scaevola-Wieczorkiewicz, Norwid-Neugebauer and many others came into being. It was also an opportunity to exchange plain names for fancier ones, e.g., Maślanka (literally meaning “buttermilk”) became Grudziński (from gruda – “clod of earth, frozen ground”, but with the -ski ending) and Leń, (an idler) became Ziemiański (a land owner).

Author: Janusz Stankiewicz
Translation: Magdalena Znamirowska
Proofreading: Nancy Maciolek Blake

Have you ever wondered about the origin of your or your ancestors’ Polish sounding surname?

Now you can ask about it in our Forum: Origins of Polish Surnames 

or discuss about the article: How Surnames Came Into Being in Poland

PolishOrigins Surnames Database

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  1. After researching my surname a year ago, I discovered that it was not a common Polish name. When I visited Auschwitz and informed a tour guide that my maternal grandmother was born in Oswiecim, and I told her what my surname was, she responded that Chwirut was not a Polish name. I concluded afterwards that she probably was not familiar with all Polish surnames. But I was just surprised at her quick response without knowing the spelling or accurate pronunciation.

  2. My last name use to be spelled Kantarowski- Looking for the geographic origin of my family.

  3. Looking for origins of family names (all Polish) My maiden name: Bazylak. My mother’s: Wojnar. My maternal grandmother: Rosov (?) My paternal grandmother: Oles (with a hatch mark over the e). Families were supposedly from Warsaw, Cracow, Black Sea area, “Black Russia” or Austria? …Thank you.

    1. My great great mother Anna Pajak was from Kopki Poland she had my great grandfather Jan. She was married to Stanislaw Rusiecki

  4. My maiden surname is Kuropatwa. I’ve been told it’s Polish for partridge. Is there anything you can tell me about it?

  5. ZIENTARA is my maiden name (father’s family from INOWROCLAW, Poland. His family left there shortly before his birth around 1897 for the U.S.A.

    My mother Helen Jaworska was born in PAKOSC, Poland in 1905. Her mother, sister and two brothers moved to the United States in 1906 to join their father who had been recruited to work in Chicago. I have a brief documentation in what I believe served as the Jaworski family passport.

    Info as to the exact location (house number, etc.), Catholic Church they belonged to or anything else would be greatly appreciated.

    Thanking you in advance.
    Barbara Zientara Shawke

  6. my mothers name Tarchala, anyone out there, we live in Connecticut, my husband last name BYK…

  7. I would like to receive information on my last name.. which is Gawronski..

    Thank you

  8. Edward,
    I will take care of that next week in our little series “Tuesdays With Polish Surnames”. Stay tuned!


  9. Hi
    Surname Krakowski, I believe it to be a person from the city of Krakow. Is it correct, and is there a coat of arms.

    Kind regards.

  10. Hello. How about Michajlow? My grandfathers name was Stanislaw Michajlow, he was a polish soldier from Zalishchyky Poland (now Ukraine), fought in WWII and later emigrated to Tasmania Australia.

  11. Hello, Our father’s surname was Zdanowicz, but he added to it legally and become Taczewa-Zdanowicz after WW2. His family was from Bialystok. Can you tell us about those names please,particularly any information about where the Taczewa came from? He emigrated to Tasmania, Australia. Thank you

  12. Hello, my father told me that his mother surname was Kuchinski, and she is polish. Could i recive information about this surname

  13. Hello, my grandmother was born in Pakosc on 10 November 1903 and she died in France in 1937 where she was married to Conrad Korzeczek. I do not know when she moved to France. Her parents were Joseph Kleczewski and Francoise Hoffman from Pakosc. Can anyone help with some research please?

  14. Jozefa Bawor, b. 1904 daughter to Leon Bawor & Wiktoria Pydo of Lopuszka, Wielka, Podkarpackie, is my paternal grandmother. I am looking for her ancestral lineage.

    I am somehow related to the Starzak & Gierula lineage from Nordz. Poland.
    Any help would be greatly appreciated.
    Unfortunately, I do not read, speak or write in Polish.
    My email in the USA is [email protected]
    Stay safe & many thank you’s in advance.
    Dawn L. Lukaszewski-Houle

  15. Hi
    I have just found out that my great great great Grandfather was called Nicholas Kichinski (lived in or near Mlawa) Is this a Polish name please?

    The husband of his daughter was called Plantone/Plato Teresko but I have been told that this is not a Polish nme at all can someone help please Appreciate all comments.
    Thank you.

  16. Very interesting article.Now I understand why tracing my Polish Ancestors back to Poland is so difficult. Neither of my my maternal nor paternal grandparents seem to have a “Polish” last name. My mother’s parents were Golenia and Lapa. I was told the Lapa was from Katowice and possibly the Golenia from Wola Dalsza.

    My father’s parents were Haryasz (I have had many people tell me that is Hungarian and my Grandmother told me he came from Russia) and Sajdak.

    From what I have found all records indicate they were born around 1894 and came from Poland, Austria.

    If anyone can shed any light on this
    I would be very grateful.

  17. Surname is Ogiba, same spelling from the time they came from Szarwark, Powiat Dabrowa (Tarnow) in 1902. I’ve been told it doesn’t sound Polish, yet I know for a fact my family is very Polish

    1. That’s exactly right Bernard :-). If you wanted to use original Polish spelling it would look like this: Dzięcioł.

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