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William F. Hoffman
Mailing address: 8 Terrace Dr., Bethel, CT 06801-2102
Website: www.fredhoff.com
E-mail: wfh@langline.com

Manager, Language & Lineage Press
Publications Editor, Polish Genealogical Society of America
Editor of Proteviai, Journal of the Lithuanian Global Genealogical Society
Editor of Gen Dobry!, e-zine of PolishRoots
Author, Polish Surnames: Origins & Meanings
Co-author, First Names of the Polish Commonwealth: Origins & Meanings



The more I deal with genealogical researchers, the more I'm tempted to add a line to the Beatitudes (you know, "Blessed are the meek," "Blessed are the poor," and so on). I'd add "Blessed are those who keep it real" -- in other words, keep it realistic (and simple) by applying your own experience. Again and again I find people becoming confused and complicating their research because they've made false assumptions -- assumptions they would never make if they just thought about it and applied a sense of what real life is like.

Let's cite a specific example. On a genealogical mailing list I saw a note from someone researching an ancestor named WEIS wondering if the name might also show up in records as WEISS or WEISE? It seemed to come as a revelation that maybe, just maybe, the name wasn't always spelled the same way -- if looking for WEIS, keep an eye open for WEISS, WEISE, VISE, etc.

I really felt like writing and asking "Has anyone in your entire life ever gotten your name wrong?" Is there anyone out there whose name HASN'T been misspelled? I have a fairly simple name, HOFFMAN, and it's been misheard or misspelled as HUFFMAN, KAUFMAN, and, in one memorable instance, HATARANY(!).

Picture a family that's come to the church to baptize a child. The priest performs the ceremony, then they go into the parish office to enter the baptism in the register. The baby is probably crying; there were surely at least two or three brothers or sisters along, teasing each other and fighting; the adults, in their Sunday best, are sweating and itching and trying to keep the kids under control. If the parish was decent-sized, there may have three or four families waiting to be registered, so the room may have been hot and stuffy. And all the while the priest is scribbling and thinking, "Why do I have to do this? No one is EVER going to look at this piece of paper!"

I'm sure practically all of us know from experience that it's easy to get names wrong. So why should we be astonished by variation in our ancestors' names? It's amazing how many researchers, in the early and painful days of their efforts, are dumbfounded by the discovery that people make mistakes! They seem to clutch at us, stunned, wide-eyed, pleading woefully, "You mean I can't trust everything I read in documents?" Unfortunately you can't trust everything you read. We all know that! And yet practically all of us lose our way when we get on "unfamiliar ground," so to speak.



Now I grant you, this kind of linguistic error is a pet peeve of mine, and I'm overreacting. And yet -- maybe not. I can't tell you how many times I've found that a researcher was having a tough time because of a misspelling, or at least a spelling that makes no sense in English. I suspect more than a few of you have had trouble because of this kind of confusion. You may have had problems finding an ancestor in a database, such as Ellis Island, because someone misread a name and failed to realize that even Poles wouldn't use a name like Scxyblgrop....

Here's an example. I was watching a documentary on the History Channel about the World War II German invasion of the Soviet Union. They showed a Russian veteran recalling his memories, translating them into English. I looked up and noticed the caption identified the Russian veteran as "Wassilij Dementjew."

OK, how do you pronounce that? I imagine most folks would guess the first name sounds like "wah-sill-idge," and the surname would sound like a reference to a maniacal Hebrew. And yet anyone familiar with Russian recognizes immediately this name, which sounds like "vah-SEE-lee de-MENT-yeff." If you spell it Vasiliy Dementiev, most people who speak English would have at least a fighting chance with it. So where did the History Channel get the spelling "Wassilij Dementjew"? From a German. Obviously the producers needed translations of German-language material, so they also asked the German translator to help out with the Russian veteran’s name. The original would be written in Russian using the Cyrillic alphabet, but the Cyrillic had to be rendered in our alphabet. The German translator spelled the name Vasiliy Dementiev the way that made sense in his language. When you pronounce "Wassilij Dementjew" by German phonetic values, it comes out perfectly. The W sounds like our V, the J like our Y, and so on. But Americans watching the documentary probably ended up thinking, "Good lord, Russian names are bizarre!"

The problem of dealing with name spellings influenced by various languages is a pretty complex one, and I don’t really have room to go into it here. If you’d like to read an article that deals with this question, try this link:


It gives lots of specific examples for Polish (and other languages), such as Polish CZ usually = English CH, Polish SZ = English SH, and so on. Note that opening this file requires the Adobe Acrobat Reader. You probably already have that program installed on your computer; if not, it’s a free download here:


While we’re on the subject of names, “keeping it real” can sometimes help you deal with the way Polish immigrants’ first names changed in America. Most of the time, when Poles found that their given names confused English-speakers, they chose the path of least resistance: they looked for a name that sounded thoroughly American, yet had some of the same sounds or letters as their Polish names. That helps explain why Stanislaw usually became “Stanley,” Czeslaw often became “Chester,” Mieczyslaw could change into “Mitchell” or “Michael,” and so on. Granted, the similarities can get pretty tenuous – for instance, many a Wladyslawa became “Lottie,” and Waclaw often turned into “Walter” – but more often than not there is a perceptible connection.

Of course, nothing can ever be too simple, and there are some name changes that defy easy explanation. There’s a reason Poles named Wojciech usually went by “Albert,” and a Jerzy usually became “George,” but no amount of common sense is going to explain it. But there again, the PGSA Website offers you some assistance:




The basic principle goes beyond name spellings, and that's really what I want to get at. The question isn't why record keepers sometimes made mistakes. The wonder is they didn't mess up more often! When you're digging up facts about your ancestors, try, try hard, to relate what you find to your own experience. If you find something is inexplicable, put a big red flag on it -- that's a sign you're probably missing something.

Researchers will often find conflicting dates in the records. This one says great-grandpa was born in 1873, but this one says 1875. How is that possible? Why not? People make mistakes. Some things we remember, some things we don't. In a less regimented society -- where most people lived in small villages and everyone knew everyone else, no one had to prove their age to a government agency to receive Social Security benefits, to register for the draft, or similar events -- why would great-grandpa really need to know what year he was born? And even if he did know it, who says the priest or official filling out the documents couldn't make a mistake and write it down wrong?

Here's a different question. I got a note from a lady who repeated a family story that her grandfather's name was changed in the army, from something very Polish to something that sounded typically American. She wanted to know if that was possible, and if so, where she'll find the records of the name change. I told her if her grandfather changed his name legally, the first place to look would be at the courthouse near where he lived. But I told her not to be surprised if there are no records.

Why assume an immigrant would spend hard-earned money on hiring a lawyer to file a suit in court to change his name? The basic law in England and America has always been that you can call yourself anything you like, as long as you're not changing names to avoid the police. If a Polish immigrant named SANDOMIERSKI realized that his new neighbors had a hard time spelling or pronouncing his name, and he got sick of trying to correct them, he could change it to anything he liked. He might retain some similarity of sound, opting for SANDS or MERSKI; or he might go American all the way and start calling himself JONES or HOPKINS. For most folks, it was a simple matter: a Stanislaw Jankowski would just start telling people, "Hi, I'm Stan Jones."

Just so you won't think this is ancient history, remember a few months ago when the papers were full of the murder in Chicago of a federal judge's husband and mother? The murdered turned out to be a Polish immigrant named Bart Ross. Except his original name wasn't Bart Ross, it was Bartlomiej Ciszewski; he just chose to go by Bart Ross in the U.S. because it helped him fit in better.

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