Native Polish surnames, just as surnames of other Slavonic nations, can be roughly divided into three main groups:
- those derived from original nicknames, as names of animals, trees, things, professions,
- those derived from the Christian name or profession of the father (patronymics)
- those derived from names of towns, villages, regions etc. (toponymics)
This may appear simple, but in many cases it is nearly impossible to determine if a given surname is derived from the name of a profession or from the name of the village which has this profession in its root. The surnames derived from names of professions can be treated as members of either of the above groups.
The Slavonic languages use many suffixes to form surnames. As an example let's look at the profession "Kowal" (a smith). Whereas the English language has one surname "Smith", and the German several of them, "Schmitt", "Schmidt" etc. (which differ only by spelling), the Polish language can add numerous suffixes (sometimes even several on the same name). Therefore, apart from the surname "Kowal" we have Kowalski, Kowalik, Kowalewski, Kowalak, Kowalka, Kowalkowski, and Kowalczyk, to name just a few which are the most frequently used ones. The same holds true for the surnames derived from Christian names. From the common name "Jan" (John), the Poles have formed more than 100 surnames, among them being Jankowski, Janicki, Jankowiak, Janiak, Jasicki, Jasinski and Jachowicz. In the case of Christian names many forms such as deminutiva and local (dialectal) variants are known, which therefore increase the possible number of surnames. Most of the surname-forming suffixes do not mean anything by themselves. Despite this, we can still learn something about a surname from the suffix that is present. The -ak suffix is typical for Western Poland, whereas -uk is chiefly found in the East. The suffix -ski is commonly said to prove "noble" origin of a family. This was true about 200 years ago. Presently most people whose surnames end with -ski (or -cki which is a phonetic variant of -ski) originate from the former lower social classes. This phenomenon is easily explained because in the 19th century everybody wanted to be considered as "noble", thus many people improved their names with this suffix.
The process of forming Polish surnames lasted several centuries. The noble class originally used "clan" names which later survived in the names of their coats of arms. Particular families within a clan used a surname derived from the name of the village they owned. When a family moved, it was usual to change the surname as well. Those surnames usually ended with -ski or -cki, which gave birth to the common statement that these suffixes "prove" a noble origin. Since at least the 17th century the surnames of the noble families became fixed and were inherited by following generations.These remain in that form from those times until today.
City inhabitants also began to use surnames at the end of the Middle Ages. Those of them who came from other countries retained their original surnames with modifications or translated them into Polish. Native Poles formed their surnames from diverse nicknames. In the 17th century this procedure ended as well.
Peasants didn't have surnames in our contemporary meaning of the word surnames until practically the late 1600's. They were using nicknames to discriminate between people with the same Christian name, but these were generally not passed from generation to generation. This custom appeared in the first half of the 18th century, at first in the Western parts of Poland and then later in the East. Despite this, within the next 100 years, surnames were often modified within a given family both by spelling and by suffixes. After 1850 the practice of developing surnames had mostly ended throughout the entire population. Also at that time the Jews were obliged to use their inherited surnames instead of their traditional patronymics.
Source: What Does My Surname Mean?
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