Polish Surname Meanings and Origins

A group of adult Poles in traditional polish costume in Krakow, Poland.
A group of adult Poles in traditional polish costume in Krakow, Poland. Getty / Moment Mobile ED

The origin of the Polish people goes back nearly 1500 years. Today, Poland is the sixth largest nation population-wise in Europe, with nearly 38 million inhabitants. Many more millions of Polish nationals or those with Polish ancestry live around the world. If you are one of them, you might wonder at the meaning of your last name. As with most European surnames, yours likely falls into one of three groups:

Toponymic Surnames 

These Polish last names typically derive from a geographical or topographical location, for instance, the homestead from which the first bearer and his family lived. In the case of nobility, the surnames were often taken from the names of familial estates.

Other place names that were adapted into surnames include towns, countries, and even geographical features. While you might think that such surnames could lead you to your ancestral village, that isn't often the case. Many places in Poland had the same name, or they changed names, disappeared altogether, or were subdivisions of a local village or estate too small to be found on a gazetteer or map.

Surnames ending in -owski usually derive from place names ending in -y, -ow, -owo, -owa, and so on. 
Example: Cyrek Gryzbowski, meaning Cyrek from the town of Gryzbow

Patronymic & Matronymic Surnames

Based on an ancestor's first name, this category of surnames is usually derived from a father's first name, although occasionally from the first name of a wealthy or well-respected female ancestor.

Such surnames can often be identified through the use of suffixes like -icz, -wicz, -owicz, -ewicz, and

-ycz, which usually mean "son of."

As a rule, Polish surnames that include a suffix with -k (-czak, -czyk, -iak, -ak, -ek-ik, and -yk) also mean something like "little" or "son of," as do the suffixes -yc and -ic, most commonly in names of eastern Polish origin.

 

Example: Pawel Adamicz, meaning Paul, son of Adam; Piotr Filipek, meaning Peter, son of Philip

Cognominal Surnames 

Cognominal surnames typically derive from a person's nickname, usually based on his occupation, or sometimes a physical or character trait. 

  • Occupational Surnames – these Polish last names are based on the person's job or trade. Some of the most common occupational surnames derive from what were the most important professions in Poland through history, such as blacksmith (Kowalski), tailor (Krawczyk), innkeeper (Kaczmarek), carpenter (Cieślak), wheelwright (Kołodziejski) and cooper (Bednarz).
    Example: Michał Krawiec, meaning Michael the tailor
     
  • Descriptive Surnames – based on a unique quality or physical feature of the individual, these surnames often developed from nicknames or pet names
    Example: Jan Wysocki, meaning John the tall

Interestingly, surnames with the -ski suffix (and the cognate -cki and -dzki) make up almost 35 percent of the 1000 most popular Polish names. The presence of that suffix at the end of a name almost always denotes Polish origin.

50 Common Polish Last Names

1. NOWAK26. MAJEWSKI
2. KOWALSKI27. OLSZEWSKI
3. WIŚNIEWSKI28. JAWORSKI
4. DĄBROWSKI29. PAWLAK
5. KAMIŃSKI30. WALCZAK
6. KOWALCZYK31. GORSKI
7. ZIELINSKI32. RUTKOWSKI
8. SYMANSKI33. OSTROWSKI
9. WOŹNIAK34. DUDA
10. KOZŁOWSKI35. TOMASZEWSKI
11. WOJCIECHOWSKI36. JASIŃSKI
12. KWIATKOWSKI37. ZAWADZKI
13. KACZMAREK38. CHMIELEWSKI
14. PIOTROWSKI39. BORKOWSKI
15. GRABOWSKI40. CZARNECKI
16. NOWAKOWSKI41. SAWICKI
17. PAWŁOWSKI42. SOKOŁOWSKI
18. MICHALSKI43. MACIEJEWSKI
19. NOWICKI44. SZCZEPAŃSKI
20. ADAMCZYK45. KUCHARSKI
21. DUDEK46. KALINOWSKI
22. ZAJĄC47. WYSOCKI
23. WIECZOREK48. ADAMSKI
24. JABŁOŃSKI49. SOBCZAK
25. KRÓL50. CZERWINSKI