Fred's Notebook | About Fred | Notebook Items
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
BLESSED ARE THOSE WHO KEEP IT REAL!
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
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
FOREIGN NAMES ARE TOUGH ENOUGH -- DON'T MAKE 'EM
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
OTHER ASPECTS OF KEEPING IT "REAL"
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.