What’s in a name?

Are you ordinary or odd? And how does that make you feel? My friend Jay Czarnecki (you remember Rambles regular Jay by now) has an unusual name. At least in this country he has an unusual name. But this spring, for his 40th birthday, he decided to go to a place where his name is not at all unusual. It’s easy to see how edifying this can be, this swimming upstream, salmon-like, to see where our names spawned. I know a woman whose last name is Myslik, and she described how wonderful it was to visit Prague and flip through the phonebook. “Look!” she recalled saying, “Pages and pages of people like me!” Her name, at that moment, gave her the peculiar pleasure of being ordinary. As for Jay, his last name goes beyond ordinary; it is heroic. But I’ll let him tell the story.

What’s in a name?

by Jay Czarnecki

“How do you pronounce your name?” It’s a question I get a lot. Although mine isn’t too difficult as Eastern European surnames go, many Americans stumble at those first two letters. “ZAR-ne-kee,” with the accent on the first syllable, is my reply. This is how my family here in the United States has always pronounced it. My Dad, born in the U.S., was the principal of the same New Jersey junior high school for twenty years, and from the continuous stream of students who passed under his care he would tolerate “zar-NECK-ee,” with the accent on the second syllable. He would take me to his school as a child, and it was a little jarring to my ears to hear our name pronounced differently, but the attentions given by staff and faculty to the principal’s son kept me from thinking about it too much. Dad always pronounced it the first way, as did his father, who was born in New York City and grew up in the “Little Poland” section of the Bronx. As I got older, the fact that there was room for variation made me dimly aware that the pronunciation of our family name probably had been Americanized when my great-grandfather came to the U.S. in the 1910’s. Once, in the early years of my engineering career, I was introduced at work to a scientist who I’d been warned was both arrogant and socially inept, an unfortunate combination, and he did not disappoint. The very first thing he said to me was “You don’t know how to pronounce your name.” I seethed at that – how dare he! – and thankfully I never had much dealings with him. Now, about a dozen years later, after my own visit to Poland, I find that maybe he was a right.

Well, maybe that’s going a little too far. It was common for immigrant families coming to the U.S. to Americanize their names, even changing them outright, and these names aren’t wrong. A person has the right to their own name, and a right to choose its meaning. For some, the family name is a treasured old book that tells an ongoing family narrative, each generation adding its own illustrious chapter. For others, it’s a blank slate which, when filled, will be the work of the author alone, and proudly so. Shakespeare asked, “What’s in a name?” I say that the owner decides.

My first visit to Poland was an opportunity to explore my own answer. This was the year of my fortieth birthday and I wanted to celebrate with a big trip abroad with several old friends from college. We’d traveled together before with great success, and we decided to include one destination city that was off the beaten path. We eventually settled on Krakow, Poland. The unconventionality of this choice was confirmed by the reactions of friends and family; I mostly got puzzled looks or questions like “Where’s that?” or “Why go there?” To be honest, I didn’t have answers at hand when my more experienced traveling buddies first suggested Krakow. But a few forays into my guidebooks revealed that Krakow is the historical capital of Poland and the vessel of holding it’s cultural heritage, with revered shrines guarding the ancient kings, saints, and patriots of a proud and resurgent people. The Old City is a beautifully preserved medieval city that has just finished cleaning the accumulated grime of Communist-era decay, and is presenting itself to the world with confidence. And it’s a lively university town to boot – the “Boston of Poland,” quipped one book.

The same guidebooks that sang Krakow’s praises also suggested that my arrogant scientist might have been onto something. Polish is a Slavic languages that uses the Roman alphabet, but the letter pronunciations are a phonetic minefield for the English-speaker, so every guidebook is dutifully prefaced with an intimidating pronunciation key. There you will find that in Polish, a “w” sounds like a “v,” a “c” sounds like a “ts,” a “cz” sounds like a “ch,” and so on. As they say, a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing; one book warned me archly “Polish pronunciation is actually a lot more complicated than shown above.” Undaunted, I figured that the original pronunciation of my last name was something like “char-NETS-kee.” Soon enough, I got to test out my theory.

My fellow travelers all live in New York City, and I was going to be near there about a two months before the trip, so we decided to meet for a trip-planning session over dinner. To help put us in the right frame of mind, we chose a Polish restaurant in the East Village. Hot, cramped, and furnished with Formica booths, it had all the trappings of a Manhattan greasy-spoon diner, except instead of burgers and fries, it was kielbasa and pierogi which competed with our maps and travel books for table space. Our waitress, an older woman with a maternal manner and a warm smile, noticed our books and asked in a heavy Slavic accent, “You are going to Poland?” We replied yes, and she assured us, with a hint of wistfulness, that we would love it – especially Krakow, chimed in another twenty-something waitress, with a knowing nod. With some prodding from my friends, I offered that I had a Polish heritage, ending with:

“My last name is Czarnecki.” ZAR-ne-kee.

Their faces, instead of beaming with recognition and camaraderie, remained frozen. Their polite and expectant smiles were still in place, but a certain incomprehension was betrayed by their knitted eyebrows. I lamely tried again.

“Um – I think it was originally pronounced – Czarnecki?” char-NETS-kee.

At that, both waitresses laughed and nodded vigorously, with exclamations of “Aaahhh” and “Ooohhh, yes!” “We know about Czarnecki,” one said, and I felt a rush, as if I had tried a newfound key in a long-locked door, and it had opened. I’d always valued the multi-generational, multi-ethnic narrative that led to this fully American me. I once read a pithy formulation of this process: for an immigrant family from Italy, for example, the immigrant is Italian-Italian, his children are Italian-American, and his children’s children are American-American. My mother’s family is Italian, her father having come to America from Italy, and most holidays, my brother and I would sit at his side at the dinner table and absorb my grandfather’s endless supply of stories about the old country, with him reaching out to touch my arm every so often for emphasis. My mother’s parents infused the family with an “Italian-ness.” But I am the American-American in the sequence, and for my children, this “Italian-ness” will be remembered and even celebrated, but not lived. I know this because I’ve experienced it on my father’s side where I stand one generation further down, living too late in the century for my great-grandfather Czarnecki to touch my arm and tell stories of old Poland. I’d known and accepted this long ago, but now the reaction of the waitresses made me wonder what I’d missed.

Before my trip, I consulted a family history on our Czarnecki family researched and written by one of my father’s cousins. As it turns out, Czarnecki and its variants are common and ancient surnames throughout Poland and Eastern Europe. Its most celebrated holder was Stefan Czarniecki, a military commander who lived in the 1600’s, and served the Polish king. The Kingdom of Poland then was ruled by an elected monarch and was known for its religious tolerance in a time when such sentiment was in short supply. It was a strong nation then, but it was menaced, as it long would be, by stronger neighbors. In the mid-1600’s, Poland was overrun by the Swedes, but Stefan Czarniecki saved the country by resisting and repulsing them at Krakow and Posnan. The king’s acclaim for the heroic Czarniecki is echoed in a stanza of the current Polish national anthem:

“Just as Czarniecki returned to Posnan after the Swedish occupation
We will throw ourselves across the sea to save the homeland.”

So I arrived in Krakow a little better informed about the history of my own name, and its original pronunciation. We made our way to our small hotel in the Old City where I had reserved a suite for our stay. I stepped up to the lobby desk and heard myself say:

“Checking in. The reservation is under Czarnecki.” ZAR-ne-kee. I hadn’t really thought about it until that moment, but I instinctively hewed to the familiar pronunciation. After all, one doesn’t change your own name lightly.

The young man behind the desk was looking down at our reservation paperwork, but at my words, his eyes flicked up at me. He didn’t really try to hide his bemusement as he asked:

“Why do you pronounce it like that?” That was the last time that ZAR-ne-kee was heard on the trip.

Those New York waitresses weren’t wrong about Krakow – it was a fantastic experience. The medieval architecture, religious sites, and cultural touchstones lent the city a sense of the sacred; a more energetic vibe came from the bunches of young people dodging tourists on their way to university classes or crowding the nighttime club scene. These two opposing charms coexisted in Krakow’s multitude of unique underground cellar bars. Apparently something about the city’s building codes in the Communist era shielded the ancient spaces beneath the city from development. Now they have been furnished and opened as restaurants and bars, where modern revelry pulses in vast 15th century stone vaults and labyrinthine hideaways.

The city was a collage of the foreign and the familiar. Most of the Poles we met spoke at least some English, and the alphabet was the familiar one. But when you scrutinized the signs and billboards, you were met with a barrage of consonants in bewildering combinations. One of my friends remarked that it was unsettling to find no recognizable foreign words or even Latin-derived roots: we were in strange, new linguistic territory. I’m not schooled in the history of architecture, but even my untrained eye could see a mixture of styles in the old buildings, a blending of the familiar West and the exotic East. The interiors of many of Krakow’s cathedrals were an explosion of colors – brilliant reds, blues, oranges, and yellows in abstract designs covering every inch of the walls, columns, and archways from ceiling to floor, an exuberance unlike in any church I’ve ever visited. Evidence of the Poles’ Catholic devotion were everywhere: it seemed that, in addition to the soaring landmark churches, many nooks and crannies of the city featured small, intimate chapels or shrines where a moment of piety could be had amidst the urban bustle. Often, I saw them in weekday use by Cracovians ranging from old women to young modish college students. And of course, the face of John Paul II greeted us throughout his former archdiocese. He died just weeks after our visit, when the old and the young gathered en masse to mourn in the squares and streets where we had walked.

Yet I found instances of commonality, made all the more striking emerging as they did from such exotic surroundings. One in particular has stayed with me. One of the touchstone historical sites in Krakow, and indeed in all of Poland, is the Wawel Cathedral. The centuries-old church is Poland’s national shrine and sanctuary, the old coronation site of the Polish monarchy, and the burial ground of Polish royalty and national heroes. I made my way through the crypts beneath the cathedral, passing the tombs of ancient kings, until finally I arrived at the tomb of Jozef Pilsudski, the Polish patriot who is considered to be the father of the modern Polish state that was founded at the early in the 20th century. The dark sarcophagus sat in a small, low-ceilinged room with dim, reverent lighting, and that day it was filled with well-dressed children. They surrounded the tomb with faces expectantly focused on one adult at the center, a woman who addressed them in a familiar instructive tone. The Polish was incomprehensible to me, of course, but at one point, I heard the rising inflection of a question, and as she paused, several hands flew into the air, as the students eagerly competed to answer their teacher’s question. I’d seen the same scene repeated at school field trips to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, as I’m sure it was everyday in all the places that peoples choose to celebrate and pass on their shared history and values. At that moment, our differences in language and culture receded.

All this led me again to thinking about names and the meaning they hold. Whenever I’m looking up a word in a dictionary, I like to pause briefly over the etymology entry and trace the twists and turns of the word’s meaning as it evolved over time. Take for example the word for the vast and sacred place where those Polish schoolchildren gathered, the cathedral. The term cathedral in medieval times meant “the church of a bishop,” a shortening of the Latin phrase ecclesia cathedralis, literally “church of a bishop’s seat.” The Romans had borrowed from the Greek word for “seat” or “bench,” kathedra, which in turn was constructed by some enterprising Greek wordsmiths from the Greek kata for “down” and hedra for “base.” Starting with the simple stone base where an ancient holy man would sit down and worship, and ending with the architectural and spiritual wonder of the soaring buildings that we now call cathedrals: what a span of history is encapsulated right there in the letters of the word! Are our own surnames like that, invested with history?

Not always. In the century after the heroism of Stefan Czarniecki, the Polish nation was gradually dismembered and absorbed by its neighbors until finally, in the late 1700’s, the Poles were a people without a state. They lived as a subjugated people until the close of World War I when an independent Poland re-emerged, only to suffer terribly again at the hands of first Nazi Germany during WWII and then the Soviet Union during the Communist era. This tragic history informs the Polish identity, and, I would have to guess, informs the identity of any Czarnecki who lived in Poland during the 20th century. But in the time my great-grandfather Czarnecki left Poland, he and his descendents – the Polish-Polish, the Polish-Americans, and the American-Americans – not only pronounced their name differently, but imbued it with a new and different meaning, a meaning derived not from the history of the Polish tragedy but from the classic American immigrant story. A great ocean of differing experience separates us from our distant cousins. We American Czarnecki’s missed nearly a century of calamity, and so Czarnecki – ZAR-ne-kee – is not invested with that meaning for us.

And yet I remember my father fondly recalling how as a small child he would be driven north from the Jersey Shore for visits to his grandmother at her apartment in New York City’s Little Poland. He remembered walking down her narrow street with tenements rising above him and it was like entering a tiny foreign country, with its own exotic language, sounds, and smells. Especially the smells, he said; his strongest memory was the heavy aromas of rich Polish cooking that blanketed the air of the entire neighborhood. When he arrived, there were hugs and a special meal. And he knew he was loved.

Certainly, cultures have great differences in their particulars, but there are so many facets of the human experience that are common to all. Lovingly prepared food shared with family as a sign of affection, is one example; teaching our children to venerate those who made sacrifices for the greater good is another. Even though we grill hamburgers and hot dogs instead of pierogi, and teach our children about Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King instead of Jozef Pilsudski, those universal traits are part of the meaning of Czarnecki, ZAR-ne-kee and char-NETS-kee.

So what’s in a name? A lot, I think. No matter how you pronounce it.

22 thoughts on “What’s in a name?”

  1. Wonderful account! I bore the maiden name of Czarnecki and for the most part we pronounced it ZAR-nee-kee……however, shortly before my father died in 2003, I had been interviewing him for family genealogy information and at that time he informed me that the last name was really pronounced Char-NETS-kee in the old country. His father was from the Ukraine near the Polish border.

    As you say, the name as written does not seem that hard to me to pronounce….if anything: Czar-neck-i should at least come out of one’s mouth. However,as mentioned, most people are just plain confused by the first two letters…..this baffles me. I would think they would have at least come across the word Czar and its pronunciation……..but it is amusing to me how intimidated they are by those two little letters together and they can’t even get to the 3rd and 4th letters to realize all four letter spell czar! HA!

    Over the years my Mom has gotten used to when people are calling out names that if they come to a place where they suddenly stop and look perplexed she knows her name is next on the list!

    I used to tell people it could be spelled in the old country way with Ts instead of Cz but I notice they are just as intimidated with that beginning. Of course, I got teased when a teenager when some kid came up with “Oh, are you the Czar of Necking?” Sorry to say, I wasn’t, as my father was indeed the “Czar” of our house!

    I am very proud of the Czarnecki name and heritage.

  2. TJ, Your comments really resonated with me. That bit about knowing when your name has come up on a read-aloud list because of the tell-tale pause – that has happened to me so many times! And it is kind of funny how little it takes for some folks to become phonetically discombobulated. And don’t even get me started on spelling!

  3. Hey, I am a Charnetski too! I absolutely understand where your coming from too! Nice to hear about our proud heritage. My whole family is in education, do you think Czarnecki’s have a tendency to be principals?

  4. To: Robert … Hi, cousin! I figure we’re related somehow, however far back in history our common ancestor is. A quick Google search shows just how common our surname really is in America. by the way, I became an engineer, but my Dad was a principal, my Mom was a teacher, and I maaried a teacher, so I’ve got some affinity for educators. Thanks for reading and commenting on the essay. And “Wesolych Swiat” – that’s “Seasons Greetings” in Polish.
    Jay Czarnecki

  5. You think you have it bad, guys… my name is Orion Czarnecki! If folks don’t get hung up on the last, they surely get hung up on the first!!

    ….every…. SINGLE…. Time!!!


  6. Wow … if you don’t mind my curiousity Orion, what is the origin of your first name?

  7. Unfortunately, I do not know much about my heritage (my grandfather’s name was Kasmir Czarnecki, and I believe he emigrated to the US in the early 1900’s). I can distinctly recall, however, my father teaching me how to spell and pronounce my last name as a young child: ZAR – nek – ee. Of course, I would hear 23984389 different (mis)pronounciations by teachers and students through grade school.

    Then, a few years ago in college, my Russian mathematics professor, Dr. Alexander Lichtman, was handing back our exams. “Kyle Char-NETZ-key”, he called out in his thick Russian accent. Without thinking, years of conditioning made me automatically correct him, “It’s ZAR-nek-ee.” He smiled and began to politely tell me – in front of the class – that I was actually the one who was mispronouncing it. ^_^

  8. Great anecdote, Kyle – and very similar to my experience. Here’s another one I bet that you (and many of us Czarnecki’s) have experienced – I can’t tell you how many times this has happened: I’m in a setting where the names of my group are being read aloud, and the reader reached my name, starts with “Jay”, then pauses in confusion, eyebrows furrowing, then nervously scans he crowd for help. I call that moment “The Pause.”

  9. Hey, another Czarnecki here!

    This is a great site, thank you very much.

    Anyway, I’ve always been told to pronounce it zar-nek-ee, but my dad actually told me about the char-netz-kee way today.

  10. Hail, Daniel, fellow cousin Czarnecki! Coincidentally, your post comes two days after I met at a business meeting a first generation Polish-Canadian who warmly chided me for introducing myself as ZAR-neck-ee. But when I could quickly offer the correct char-NET-skee, all was saved. “I understand that it is a common name in Poland,” I said. “It is GREAT name, an important name, ” he said.

  11. My mother was Alexandra Czarnecki and her bother Zigmund, sisters Helen and Theresa all lived in either Little Neck or College Point, NY from about 1915 to 1970’s. There children and grand children still live on Long Island. What’s harder – Czarnecki or Yuszkiewicz??

  12. Don,
    Greetings (distant) cousin! I think Yuszkiewicz is the winner. Let me take a guess on pronunciation: YOOSH-kya-vich?
    Jay Czarnecki

  13. Jay Cz – my parent pronounced it Yuz kev ich but some people say Yosk o witz,

    By the way Paul, my cousin from Little Neck, NY was also a Paul and his sister Barbara.

  14. My whole life I’ve heard people butcher my last name so much! I grew up listening to bedtime stories about Stefan Czarnecki and have always known my background, so I have always pronounced it “charNETSki” but to be honest, once you explain the way it is actually pronounced to people…its not that hard to pronounce. It really isn’t much of a tongue twister once explained correctly…the trick i thought up when I was younger was when I met people I would tell them my last name was made up of three english words…”char”..”net” …”ski”. and everyone to this day that i’ve told that to says it correctly. One good thing about having this last name is that you always know when a telemarketer is calling cuz they are the ones that butcher it the most! haha

  15. Thanks for the comment Kate. You’ll have no troubles when you visit Poland someday if you haven’t already)!

    Now you’ve piqued my curiousity … I wouldn’t mind hearing a little more about those Stefan Czarnecki bedtimes stories.


  16. Hi Jay! That was a great lecture! And comments too. It’s kind of weird but simultaneously interesting. I never had to look on our name form yours perspective. I’m Polish(-Polish :]), living in Poland where everybody just say it right . It’s nice that my name, well, our name wasn’t transformed like mentioned Yuszkiewicz (from Juszkiewicz). It seems to me, in its original form, it sort of links to a place of its origin, even if it’s pronounced wrong (till 40, wow). Sorry to say this, but I’m actually happy by the fact. Well, at least we don’t have to say something like Trzetrzelewski or Brz?czyszczykiewicz ;).
    And another thing, just when I was loosing hope that Poles over the ocean mostly feel ashamed of their Polish heritage, strangely I found this site thru twitter and.. I’m proud! Really! Now I need to change my thinking on the subject, at least a bit.

  17. To ?ukasz Czarnecki:
    Thanks very much for your message ( I’m sorry that the first letter in your name is being shown as a ?). It’s great to hear from a Czarnecki “cousin” from Poland.

    It’s my opinion that many Americans are interested and often proud of the heritage of their immigrant ancestors, however distant. And that goes for Polish-Americans too.

    Could you tell us the name of your city or town? I’d like to find it in my atlas.


  18. my mothers madien name is charnetski (Czarnecki) the church made my grandfather (Daniel Charnetski, Czarnecki) change it for some odd reason. but i was wondering if any of us are related 2 Stefan Czarnecki. or if i am? that would kickass

  19. As far as I’m concerned, Orin, we are related to old Stefan. Which also makes us distant cousins. Howdy, cuz!

  20. hell ya bro! im working on a genealogy project for an english class and im putting him in it. howdy? haha Wisconsin all the way

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