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This article focuses on Polish surnames: the many different types, the historical connotations, as well as the different types of meanings that can be ascribed to them.
As a point of review, there are 3 categories that Polish surnames fall into, based upon where the surname is originally derived from:
The focus of this article is to shed some more light on the specific meanings behind Polish surnames, with a bit more concrete focus on exact last names, as well as suffixes that can be commonly seen and translated across many different surnames. We’ll begin by focusing on the 10 most common Polish surnames.
By far, the most common Polish surname is Nowak, which is used by some 203,980 citizens which is almost double the amount of the 2nd most commonly used surname. Not only is this surname popular in Poland, but it is the most popular surname in surrounding Slavic countries including the Czech Republic and Slovenia. The name is derived from the Slavic term translating to ‘new’ and is loosely translated to mean the ‘new guy in town,’ therefore this would be considered a cognominal surname. Occasionally, the name was also bestowed upon an individual who ‘newly’ converted to Christianity. More specifically, the name can be traced back to 2 Polish noble families, one as early as the 15th Century, and the other appearing in the 1700s.
The 2nd most common Polish surname is Kowalska or Kowalski with 137,981 citizens holding this last name. This particular name is recorded in at least 40 different spellings. The origin of the last name can be traced back to pre 7th century: the root word kowac translates ‘to forge’ and therefore would be a cognominal surname on basis of the individual’s occupation being an iron or metal worker. Interestingly enough, the suffix -ski (as with any other Polish last name ending with this suffix) suggests land ownership as well. The 5th most common last name Kowalczyk falls under the same category as Kowalska as a variant in spelling, with 97,537 individuals claiming this spelling as their last name.
Wisniewska or Wisniewski is the 3rd most common Polish surname. With 109,896 individuals claiming this as their last name and is our first of the most common surnames that is of toponymical origin, meaning it was derived from a specific geographical region. This name indicates that a man came from one of the dozens of Polish towns named Wisniewo or Wisniew. When translated, it roughly comes out to mean “town with a cherry tree.”
The surname Wojcik comes next in line, with 99,098 individuals reporting this as their last name. As yet another cognominal surname, this last name roughly translates to ‘noble’ or ‘bright.’ With humble beginnings, individuals with this last name joined into one of the 12 noble tribes of Poland. As their house began to expand with the acquisition of other estates, it grew in popularity and the name became much more widely used, to the point where it became one of the most popular used today.
Next on the list is Dabrowski. This name is derived from the term dabrowa or dabrowka which means "oak grove". The Polish National anthem is sometimes called Dabrowski's Mazurka.
Number 6 on the list of most commonly used Polish surnames is Kaminska or Kaminski. As the last name of 97,537 citizens, this name is used both toponymical and cognominal in nature. Respectively, it translates both to, ‘one who came from a rocky place’ as well as ‘person who works with rocks’ such as a stone carver or an individual who would have worked in a query (so not necessarily mutually exclusive occurrences). Others may interpret this as an individual who dwells near some type of boundary line, which many centuries ago would have been a rock or boulder of some sort.
Nearing closer to the end of our list, the 7th most common Polish surname is Lewandowska or Lewandowski. As another strictly toponymical surname, this name designates an individual that would have come from the village of Lewandów. Translated, this word also means lavender, which could constitute an individual who came from ‘a place of lavender.’
Zielinska or Zielinski comes 8th on the list of most common Polish names. 90,658 individuals bear this surname, and with a rough translation to ‘Green’ has a wide variety of potential implications of the original individual who this surname originated. Cognominally, this individual could have lived by the Village Green, while others believe this could have been an individual who habitually wore the color Green, while still others believe this could have been a theatrical name given to an individual. This name may also be cognate with the common American last name of Green.
Number 9 with 88,381 citizens using the surname, is Szymanska or Szymanski. This is the first and only name on our list that is patronymic in nature. The root name it stems from is Szymon. Paired with the -ski prefix would directly translate to ‘son of Szymon.’ The -ski prefix as discussed earlier, indicates land ownership, however given the possessive quality of land centuries ago, the two aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive as the land would have been passed along in the same way as the surname to indicate the passing along of wealth to the next generation.
Our final surname Wozniak is the 10th most common Polish surname. 87,981 individuals claim this as their last name. As a cognominal surname, this name could be translated into a variety of different occupations the original individual would have had. Wozic more specifically translates to mean ‘to carry’ which would denote a driver, or a coachman of horses. It could also translate to an individual who was a government official.
While you may not have found your specific Polish last name on this list, many of the rules such as the -ski suffix are universally applicable. There’s also a huge wealth of knowledge going into even further depth than this article went into on the internet. You may be quite surprised to find out what your surname means, or where it came from, it could even tell you a little bit more about where your ancestors are originally from centuries and centuries ago, who knows!
Celebrate your last name by wearing it on a shirt! Check out our Polish Surname shirts here.