I’ve always taken pride in my last name. That distinctive “-ski” ending, asserting a clear and concise Polish root.
I must have first become aware of the Polish-ness of “Makowski” sometime during early grade school. There always seemed to be a few of us in every class. Those rogue Makowski’s, Jablonski’s and Kotarski’s, deviously appearing on the role call next to the Smith’s and the Johnson’s. Those poor teachers would trip over the pronunciation for at least a week.
Then, there was that one time, out on the playground at recess. It must have been around third grade. One of my kiddy classmates made up a chant to help her remember my last name. “MA has a COW that SKIS. Ma-kow-ski!” She thought it was totally cool. So did I.
Over the years, I got used to the pronunciation blunders and spelling errors. I can’t even begin to count the times when I’ve had to dictate my last name to someone. In one breath, the unfortunate receiver’s response is always something like, “How in the hell is that spelled?”, immediately followed by, “That’s Polish, isn’t it?” Polish names do that. Confuse and clarify, both at the same time.
I’ve always thought it meaningful that my last name – one little word – could reveal something about my family background. That four generations after my great-grandparents arrived in America, a statement about my identity continues being made, through my surname. My mind holds the romantic notion of a link – an unbroken and unchanging chain – connecting me with my ancestors. I may have been born and raised in America, but my surname still implies that I’m Polish. Right? Right??
How surprised I was, to realize within the first few days of being in Poland, that my name, Jenna Makowski, immediately implies: FOREIGNER!
The first time I had to dictate my full name in Poland was at a bank. I was so excited to do this and practiced, over and over again, the Polish pronunciation of Makowski. Finally, someone would hear my last name and be able to write it, without flinching.
(In case you’re curious, the “kow” has a completely different vowel sound, similar to the “oo” in “book”….sort of… And the “w” is pronounced like a “v”.)
The big moment came and I recited my name, pronouncing Makowski with a flourish. Yup, that’s a Polish name.
The teller looked at me like I had an arm growing out of my forehead.
There are two reasons why my name sounds weird in Poland.
The first, and more obvious, reason is that while Makowski IS a distinctly Polish name, Jenna is not. In my experiences so far with Polish first names (and, with over 200 Polish students, I think I can claim some experience), there’s not as much variation as there is with first names in America. Polish first names are generally just as distinct as Polish last names. Katarzyna; Mateusz; Aleksandra; Czesław; Stanisław. I learned that Janina would be the Polish equivalent of my first name. While Jenna (and all of its variants – Jenny, Jennifer, Jen) blaringly implies: American child of the ‘80s!
The second, and less obvious, reason is that by using “Makowski” in Poland, I’m implying to people that I…um…have some issues with gender orientation. Polish is a gender-specific language. All nouns, including names, are gendered. Surnames ending in “-ski” are always masculine, while the feminine versions end in “-ska”. A woman with a “-ski” name in Poland is confusing. People probably think I am confused about my gender.
So really, my name isn’t Polish. It’s a Polish-American hybrid. While my first name points to the specific place and generation into which I was born, my last name ties me to a distinctly Polish-Americanization process. For the most part, my great-grandparents wanted to be American. It makes sense that, in the context of a melting pot society of non-Polish speakers, they would have done anything possible to make their last names easier to handle. So when my great-grandmother married my great-grandfather, she took a step toward simplification by ditching the feminine ending. (Her maiden name, by the way, was Grządzielewska. Try pronouncing that, my fellow American friends.)
So, if my ancestors had never stepped on board those ships to America, I would have been born in Poland as Janina Makowska. But, their decisions led down a different path. And I embrace the confusing, hybrid mess that is my American-ized Polish name.
It is ironic, though.
I say “Makowski” in America, and people think I’m Polish. I say “Makowski” in Poland, and people think I’m American.
This article was originally published as “Identity Crisis” on Jenna’s blog Just Doing It. Check back for more posts by Jenna on PocketCultures – she has agreed to join us as a regular contributor.
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5 comments for “What does your name say about you?”
How interesting, Jenna! I thought this change only occured in Russian! In Spain, we have two last names: our first father’s surname and our first mother’s surname.
I think it happens in Bulgarian as well. Very interesting post Jenna!
Thanks! I’d be willing to bet that it happens with names in most Slavic languages, since most Slavic languages differentiate between masculine and feminine nouns.
Hi Jenna! Great first post and one that I completely relate to as my surname is Szamborski. Usually when asked my name I just say, “Szamborski-Would-you-like-me-to-spell-it?” since that is always the next question. It seems to be that all the immigrants went with the masculine spelling and, in my family’s case, there may have even been more spelling changes for ease of pronunciation. One auntie argues that it was Szym rather than Szam, originally. At any rate, I am completely jealous of your stay in Poland as I have never even been there. I hope you are having a wonderful time:)
love this, jenna!