What's in a Name? – The gender divide

I have long been intrigued by Polish names and how they are used, even before I moved to Poland. In the first of a series on names in Poland and how they are used, I will be looking at the differences in personal names, nicknames and diminutive names from a masculine and feminine perspective.

What name did you give me?!?!?

She’s the one

I’ve found it interesting how almost every Polish female name has a sort of nickname that can be applied. Trying to understand the connection between a name and it’s diminutive has often been challenging, as I have needed to ask a Polish person what a certain name is ‘short’ for. Recent examples have been understanding Ula (short for Urszula) and Iza (for Izabela). I have not yet been able to understood how Joanna became adapted to Asia, but perhaps one of our Polandian readers can inform me.

Some other examples of female diminutive names are listed following. There’s Asia (short for Joanna), Basia (Barbara), Kasia (Katarzyna), Gosia (Małgorzata), Zosia (Zofia), Zuzia (Zuzanna), Ela (Elżbieta), Ula (Urszula), Ola (Aleksandra), Aga (Agata or Agnieszka) and Iza (Izabela) – and that is just to begin with. If you begin to say the above names fast enough, they might sound like

Animaniac’s Yakko listing the nations of the world.

There’s Asia and Kasia, Gosia and Basia…

It makes me wonder if parents sometimes deliberately name their daughters to have a ‘cute’ Polish nickname… However, I have seen how it may backfire also. While at Stansted airport in London once before a flight back to Kraków, one silly girl (in her twenties) had trouble getting on the flight because she had written her name as “Ola X” on her ticket, while her ID gave her name as “Aleksandra X”. She spent half an hour arguing with a Ryanair official to be allowed on board the flight, before the stewardess finally called a Polish colleague of her own who was able to confirm that Ola is used as a short name for Aleksandra.

What the ‘ek?

My understanding of the ‘-ek’ which is added to most male names in Poland is that it is used in a diminutive form of the name. It would be similar to ‘-ín’ used in the Irish (Gaelic) language or ‘-inho’ in names in Brazilian Portuguese, but in most cases in those languages, the addition is given either to a child’s name or as a nickname for an adult. However, in Polish the ‘-ek’ suffix seems to be applied more liberally, with most Polish male names having it added on in day-to-day use.

In many cases, adding the diminutive form makes sense, especially in longer names. Przemysław, Tomasz, Mirosław and Radosław are all simplified by becoming Przemek, Tomek, Mirek and Radek. I have to say though, that it sounds strange for me when a short name becomes lengthened by adding the diminutive form. This applies when names such as Piotr and Rafał are adapted. I saw an interesting example when out walking on a Kraków street once, where a mother shouted to her 3 year old son; “Rafałek – chodż!” I cannot understand why names such as Piotr and Rafał would not be shortened to Pit and Rafa instead of the Polish diminutives being Piotrek and Rafałek.

There are a few exceptions to the ‘-ek’ rule of course, with names such as Adam, Sebastian and Jakub becoming Adaś, Seba and Kuba. But, it seems in Poland, that the ‘-ek’ is applied to male names as much as possible. I’ve found it particularly interesting when meeting a 2 metres tall Polish policeman with a broad chest and a serious look on his face. He introduced himself to me as Włodek – and I had an image of patting him on the head like a little boy by translating his name to ‘little Włodzimierz’.

Who are you calling Włodek?

Familiarising yourself

Just to complicate things slightly, the above examples can be used for personal names in Poland in almost any situation. It is not only in informal settings with family and friends, but can also include situations with acquaintances or in work with ‘koledzy’. However, once you do reach a level of high familiarity with someone (usually in the case of family and close friends), you can then address them with a ‘-u’ added to their name. And to make it more difficult to follow, the ‘-u’ suffix can also be applied on existing diminutive names. Examples can be Gosiu, Grzesiu, Mirku, Asiu and so on. This is something that can be added to both male and female names, and if someone uses it with your name, you know they are comfortable enough to consider themselves as being a friend.

“He called me Tomku – we must be buddies now! I’ll just rest my arm on his shoulder like so…”

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34 thoughts on “What's in a Name? – The gender divide

  1. PMK says:

    Well, the -u/-o suffix is just part of the vocative case (used when directly addressing someone). Much like you would write to your professor “Szanowny Panie Profesorze” or “Mamo!”

  2. Malcolm says:

    As far as I’m aware (based primarily on sideways glances), Joanna can also be shortened as Joasia, which then lends itself to Asia.

    I have also learnt the hard way not to confuse Kasia with Kasza – a common trap for foreigners.

  3. Matka Polka says:

    oh no typos:
    Zusia=Zuzia, Zusanna=Zuzanna
    Adasz=Adaś

    I will give you a glimpse of my name:

    Natalia = Natala, Natalka, Natka, Natusia, Natunia, Nateczka, Nata, Nataleczka, Nataleńka, Nataszka, Nati, Natula etc.

    It’s crazy

  4. daa says:

    You can say : “Panie Mirku” – reserved for something more than an official relationship (“proszę pana”), more between colleagues, less than between friends. I would say that next step is simply “Mirek! What do you say?” So no vocative involved.

    Much as I like reading Polandian, I sometimes wish the authors had done any basic research before posting, otherwise it might sound ignorant for the natives (however interesting for foreigners)

  5. Gabriela says:

    In Spanish, you get the familiar form by adding the male suffix -ito, or the female form -ita. So, I’d be Gabrielita, longer than the original Gabriela.
    But we have nicknames too. Such a Gabriela becomes Gaby or even Gabita.
    So, you see, you have pet forms and nicknames to fit everyobody’s taste!

  6. polkaontheisland says:

    That’s because we come in batches.

    Not only in the -sia and -ek diminutive factor, but there is also a pool of names in a given generation. The pools overlap, of course.

    Females:
    80yo: Genowefa (Genvieve) – Gienia, Hanna – Hania, Stanisława – Stasia
    60yo: Helena – Hela, Jadwiga – Jadzia, Wiesława – Wiesia
    40yo – Bożena – Bożenka, Irena – Ircia, Krystyna – Krysia
    30yo – Ania, Asia, Kasia, Madzia, Aga, Paulina – Pauśka
    20yo – Justyna – Justysia, Andżelika – Ania, Marta – Martusia, Natalia – Natka, Ewelina – Ewel, Monika – Moniś

    Males:
    80yo: Zygmunt – Muniek, Stanisław – Staszek
    60yo: Marek – Marek, Jerzy – Jurek, Dariusz – Darek
    40yo: Adam – Adam, Michał – Misiek, Piotr – Piotrek Piterek, Rafał – Rafałek
    30yo – Łukasz – Łukacha, Bartosz – Bartek, Jakub – Kuba, Sławomir – Sławek,
    20yo – Miłosz – Miłoszek, Szymon – Szymek, Mateusz – Mateo Mita, Dawid – Dawidek

  7. scatts says:

    Basic research? I checked the requirements for professional journalists, like what we are, and the word research never appeared once! ;)

  8. island1 says:

    I researched ‘research’ once: got caught in an infinitely diminishing loop for 7 million years.

  9. Name says:

    Daa, Aren’t you nitpicking a bit here? I’m a “native” and find this article ery interesting (and amusing)

  10. siudol says:

    How about Jacek for an exception to the rule? It ends with the “ek”, but it is actually the formal name. The diminutive would be Jacus. And, no, Decoy, I would never pat that cop on the head, in case it crosses his mind to pat me back.

  11. Decoy says:

    Rather than typos, I should admit that these mistakes are from my comprehension in how I hear the names being pronounced by Poles. I find myself sometimes making these errors, as I believe that Poles do not always enunciate their pronounciations as well as I would like, but that is probably be a topic for another day.

    Regardless, I have corrected these ‘typos’ – thanks for the feedback!

  12. GT says:

    With regards to diminitives being longer than the full name, it’s not exclusively a Polish thing – in English, the name Johnny is longer than John :)

  13. Piotr says:

    No exception here :-). Jacek is the diminutive of Jacenty, although it seems the latter is far less popular than the former and Jacek has become a name of its own. Jacuś is the second-degree diminutive like e.g. Piotruś (Piotr -> Piotrek -> Piotruś, Jacenty -> Jacek -> Jacuś).

  14. siudol says:

    Well explained Piotr, or if I may be familiar with you, Piotrek ;).

  15. aika says:

    I think that Polish diminutives can be roughly divided into three categories:
    – neutral,
    – tender,
    – tough.

    In most cases, the first step is to create a neutral diminutive – like Tomek, Radek, Piotrek, Krzysiek, Gosia, Basia, Ola etc. Of course sometimes it’s difficult or impossible.

    The netural diminutive (or the basic name) may be then used to create a tender diminutive, to be used while speaking to a child or a person very dear to you (or to anybody, in case you are a diminutive form addict):
    Tomeczek, Jareczek, Piotruś, Gosieńka, Basieńka, Oleńka, Olusia. Note, that tender forms are often (not always) longer than the basic form. They are supposed to express feelings, not to be ‘economic’.

    You can also create a ‘tough’ form, to be used between buddies, especially active, pugnacious, energetic people: Krzych, Jaro, Stach, Gocha, Bacha, Olka, Elka, Zocha.

    I think, that in case on male names, the neutral form (if existing) is often ‘tough enough’. The tender form can always be created, but sometimes sounds mocking (like Robercik). In case of female names the form I called ‘neutral’ often sounds a bit tender already (e.g. Basia, Zosia), therefore ‘tough girls’ prefer tough forms.

  16. Wiktor says:

    Because British people using their native tongue are very forthcoming and always perfectly enunciate things to foreigners?

    Riiiiight, it’s no secret that two people from different countries using English (which neither of them knows THAT well) will more readily understand each other , than a Brit talking to a foreigner. No? ;)

  17. Witold says:

    Very interesting. I am Polish living in Australia and have to add my name Witold and other forms of it are: Witek and Witus.

  18. Iota says:

    Concerning the policeman:

    Currently, quite often the unaltered form of a name (especially a longer one), which technically should be neutral, is seen as “distanced”, something you’d use if you specifically didn’t want people to be friendly with you.

    That is perhaps why the policeman introduced himself as “Włodek”. If he uses “Włodzimierz” he risks being seen as the “cold-as-an-iceberg” type. Maybe he was more worried about that than about you patting him on the head… :-)

  19. Moon says:

    Hmm, what about:

    Robert -> Bob
    Richard -> Dick

    They always made no sense to me. Especially the latter.

  20. Additionally, diminutives of all kinds are often (but not always!) used to signify the nature of a relationship between two people, rather than feelings per se (though the two are obviously connected). Gośka is likely your sister. Gocha (pron. GOH-ha) is probably your best buddy from school. Gosia is your friend, in most cases. And Małgosia may be your coworker. All four are actually named Małgorzata.

    To make things more complicated, some people switch back to “formal” when they become very close friends or a couple. Sometimes it also works the other way. “Gonia” (another diminutive of Małgorzata) is how one of my cousins calls another when they’re about to yell at each other.

    On top of that, some people refer to themselves with an informal variant of their name, because they don’t like the formal one. For instance, I know a few men named Maciej, but literally all of them feel “Maciej” sounds archaic and prefer to be called Maciek instead. It doesn’t mean you can automatically consider them your friends.

    While most names have several “stock” diminutives for you to choose from, personal diminutives are actually kind of custom-built on a case-by-case basis. E.g. two of my friends have the same name, but in one case I use the diminutive liberally, while in the other using the same diminutive would amount to saying “we’re not friends anymore”.

  21. Grze$ko says:

    Interesting. Being born Polish I’ve always found it perfectly natural that names change depending on level of familiarity, situation etc. Often even between close friends the most official and often serious-sounding version of the name is used in jest.
    I’ve found out the hard way that it not so in English speaking countries.
    My first surprise was that people are very specific about the form of their name they use. For example Greg vs Gregory. You call a Gregory Greg and they get all hig-horsey, No, they say, It’s Gregory. I could not understand that as for me they are one name.
    Oh, the fun I had applying for my Oz passport having “proof of existence” some under Greg and some under Gregory.
    I was told that they ARE NOT the same name and that I have not enough points to prove that I exist and actually HAVE a name…
    Eventually I reverted to my original spelling of Grzegorz and told the passport people they can call me Grzes, Grzesiu, Grzesiulek, Grzesko etc.
    Now I am waiting at the airports to hear my name over the PA…
    BTW, off to China today, and they have no character for a few sounds from my surname… Last time after an hour of research (the magic word for this thread) they just put me down as Ge Lei Ge – that will do.

  22. tee says:

    I love that baffling feature in our language – shows just how creative we can be and why it really doesn’t matter if half of the country has the same name >D

    Check out my foreign name and what can be done in Poland with it:

    Tina – Tinka, Tineczka, Tinusia, Tinuśka, Tiśka, Tinia, Tini, Tinek, Tisiaczek (it’s not that uncommon today to sometimes make a ‘gender-neutral’ nickname for girl’s name e.g.: Asiek, Gosiek), etc…

  23. Dawid says:

    “Joanna” is a peculiar name. It seems like it’s pretty much the same as Anna, but the diminutives are very different. When I was a teenager I actually thought that Ania is a diminutive for both of them! I was corrected by my female friends soon enough… So, Joanna is Joaśka / Aśka, which are somewhat more feisty and for buddies, and Joasia / Asia that are more tender and for good friends and loved ones. Joanna as such is so formal that practically no-one uses it on a daily basis.

    As for “Rafałek” and other similar male diminutives, such as “Dawidek” and “Robercik”, I find them unwieldy. They are mostly used only for small children and for loved ones, but not for friends and colleagues. And frankly speaking, I’m happy my name is this way, because no-one who contacts me has the problem of crossing the line between the formal version of the name and its diminutive, which can sometimes be quite awkward and embarassing. People who talk to me for the first time and my good friends both adress me as Dawid, which makes things simple.

    As for vocatives (Tomek/Tomku, Dawid/Dawidzie, Asia/Asiu etc.) they are becoming less popular, although gramatically speaking they are the only correct form for addressing someone directly. People nowadays quite often use just the nominative, which in the past was very informal – now it’s just normal.

  24. aika says:

    Aaaah, but in some circles the vocatives are used as nominatives, as in “Krzysiu ma psa” or “Jasiu bardzo nam pomógł”.

  25. Leszek says:

    As far as the exception goes, it’s Leszek which is NOT short for Lech.

    Just to confuse the whole diminutive thing.

  26. Sylwia says:

    Perhaps the most confusing case is Jakub and Kuba.

  27. Kuba says:

    Since my name is Jakub, dim Kuba what is confusing about it? Kubus or………..

  28. Sylwia says:

    …Kubek?

    Well, I imagine it might be confusing to a foreigner to have a male name that escapes all the rules and gets a feminine ending.

  29. Kuba says:

    Ah yes the almighty cup, good one.

  30. Przemo says:

    Yes, it’s the universal “-ek” for a male nickname/name dimunitive all around the country, however, moving into some regions of Poland (for example, Poznań and its vicinity) you’ll find the “-as” suffix used more often than the “-ek” (in the case of names which can be shortened this way, that is). So, first and foremost, it’s going to be Piotras (Piotr), Wojtas (Wojciech), Cinas (Marcin), Jaras (Jarosław) etc. there.

    Not sure as to the geographical use of the nickname (it’s been very popular in my neck of the woods, there were times I’ve heard people use it in various parts of Poland as well) or its popularity today, but there was a time every young Tomasz, Robert and Arkadiusz was called Tomson, Robson and Arson. This is quite a puzzling form of the origins of which I don’t know anything to this day.

  31. Michal says:

    And there is another rule which applies to the official relations:

    If a policeman stopping you for speeding addresses to you as ‘Panie kierowco’ (‘Prosze pana’ is even worse) is a bad sign – you’ll end up with a penalty ticket and some points on your driving licence. Whereas if he says ‘Panie Marku’ means that negotiation has started and you can be free for as little as 20zł :-)

  32. szopeno says:

    “panie Marku” is just rude in quite a lot of situations. It is very recent invention, and personally I don’t like it when strangers address me in form like that.

  33. fiercefarce says:

    That’s not right at all. Sometimes diminutives are ended in -u or -o (Jan -> Jaś -> Jasio, Tomasz -> Tomek -> Tomcio) when they are second-level. “Krzysiu” (Krzysztof -> Krzyś -> Krzysiu) and “Jasiu” (Jan -> Jaś -> Jasiu) here are nominative cases – just another form. It’s perfectly correct to say “Everybody, this is Krzysiu.” – especially when a child is being spoken about.

    They are declined just like their “less” diminutive companions “Krzyś” and “Jaś”.

  34. Paul says:

    Natalia! You gave almost a complete list, but you could also be Natusenka!

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