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What does the -arz mean in Polish surnames? Keith Kaszubik • Fri, Oct 26, 2012 The title of this article is an onomatological question which I am often asked in Polonia. The answer requires a little explaining and is more complex than most people realize. Rather than reply to numerous people on an individual basis, it is better to utilize the medium of a newspaper reaching thousands of people simultaneously.
Generally speaking, but certainly not exclusively, the suffix -arz (-orz in Silesia [cf. -ak versus -ok]) denotes an occupational name. There are numerous examples among Polish surnames: Bednarz ("cooper"), Karczmarz ("innkeeper"), Kucharz ("cook"), Owczarz ("shepherd"), Piekarz ("baker"), Tokarz ("turner, lathe operator"), Winiarz ("wine-maker"), etc.
Occasionally the -arz in surnames are from Polonized forms of German occupational names. A few examples are Foryciarz (from the German Vorreiter, "one that rides before, an outrider"), Malarz ("painter") from the German Mahler, and Rymarz ("saddler") from German Riemer.
In Polish, the digraph rz (or ¿) at the end of a surname (or words such as m¹¿, "husband") is devoiced and pronounced like sz (English sh), instead of like the English s in measure in words such as burza, rzepa, etc. Due to this fact a peculiar transformation has taken place among surnames throughout Polonia.
In Western New York are now found fixed spellings such as Bednasz alongside Bednarz, Gancasz / Gancarz (from garncarz, "potter"), Strychasz / Strycharz ("tile-maker, brick-maker"), Tokasz (also Tokash)/ Tokarz and Winiasz / Winiarz. (It should be noted that -sz is also a suffix in its own right and conversely some surnames rightfully ending in -asz have mistakenly become - arz).
Regardless of the variation in spelling, these surnames are still pronounced the same way in Polish. As always, it's important to remember that in the days of our ancestors it was more important how a surname sounded rather than how it was spelled. It's the so-called American pronunciations that are confusing and can even be interpreted as downright crude attempts at humor (e.g., "Lucky Savage" for £ukaszewicz, "Sewer-Rat" for OEwierat, etc.).
To explain this phenomenon (-asz from -arz), some people have filled in the blanks with both real and imaginary stories. For instance, "There was a falling-out between the two brothers and one changed the name" or "We're not related to that family [anymore] that spells their name different" (even if the socalled different spelling being referred to happens to be the correct one).
These occupational surnames are most certainly polygenetic (versus monogenetic) meaning that they developed at different places at different times. Obviously, having the same occupational surname doesn't indicate consanguinity (i.e., a blood relationship) and it would be ridiculous to believe that everyone with the surname Bednarz is descended from one common progenitor.
If hereditary surnames were being given out in our day and age, I might be known as Pisarz ("writer"), but that hardly means that I would be related to, or could acknowledge kinship with, Buffalo's famous Polish brewer who bore the German occupational name Schreiber ("writer"), even considering the urban legend that he was originally surnamed Pisarek.
The phenomenon of rz transforming to sz is not limited to occupational names in WNY and is also found in spellings such as Pietszak (correctly Pietrzak) for the same aforementioned reason. In 2002 Poland there were almost 40,000 people with the surname Pietrzak, but not one Pietszak. Undoubtedly native Poles instinctively know that the correct spelling is Pietrzak since the root comes from the masculine given name Pietr, an old form of what is now the standard Piotr (Eng. Peter), which gave rise to innumerable surnames.
Incidentally, in 2002 Poland there were close to 16,000 Bednarz (1,062 Bednorz), but only 14 Bednasz; 4,290 Gancarz, no Gancasz; 1,119 Strycharz, no Strychasz; 7,429 Tokarz, only 1 Tokasz; 1,855 Winiarz, no Winiasz; and so on.
In conclusion, Polish surnames derived from occupational names are an integral part of our heritage and culture. Their origins and meanings teach us how work and social activity was accomplished in the past with continuity down to the present day.