Thursday, June 10, 2010

Catching Some Z's or What's in a (sur)Name?

Graphic Z courtesy of FCIT
Apologies to Shakespeare, but in my case what's in a name is often a Z - and I don't mean the name is so boring that I doze off.  My resurgent interest in my Carpatho-Rusyn ancestry has me scouring church and census records from the former Austro-Hungarian Empire.  In almost every case my ancestors' surnames have been recorded in the Hungarian version - Magyarized - and the spelling changed so that every S becomes an SZ.  Reasonable, I suppose, given that they were running the show.  But it's beginning to frustrate me.

With each new discovery I weigh how I record the name.  Is it Szidor or Sidor?  Perekszta or Pereksta?  Kommiszar or Kommisar?  Szmolyak or Smolyak?  Given names are often recorded in the Hungarian version.  Do I use Janos (the Hungarian) or Ivan (the Rusyn)?  Helena or Olena?  For that matter, were they born in Sztarina or Starina?  Toss in a few Latin or cyrillic versions and I feel a migraine coming on.

It's easy enough to decide on those names recorded in my grandfather's family record - I use the spelling he used (no Zs).  For the others I'm having to make an educated guess.  I do note the spelling variations in the source references, but I find I'm reluctant to record state imposed variations under alternate names.  And so I'm doing it - I'm opting for the Rusyn version and standardizing spelling.  Call it a political/nationalist awakening (something I have studiously resisted over the years) or pure laziness - I just can't take any more Zs!  And no matter how many documents record my great-grandfather's name as Janos, I know he was Ivan.

I was about to write that this was one reason I preferred to use United States records when I read one of Cynthia Shenette's What's In A Name? postings.  It left me giggling and remembering that census and immigration records in this country can be even more challenging.  Most of us with 19th & 20th century immigrant ancestors have come across wildly creative spellings.

At least the Hungariansz were conszisztent.


  1. Oh no, I think it's catching. I'm glad I'm not the only one--I feel your pain. My husband's last name is Yaneshak. He said his grandfather emphasized the "ne" in the middle. You certainly have more knowledge on this one than I do. Any suggestions on the original spelling? My husband brought up a good point--the name spellings were translated from cyrillic so there was/is no exact translation. I think his great-grandfather's name was Ivan. Thoughts?

    Love the post!


  2. Crazy, isn't it? But good for a laugh. At this point I prefer phonetic spelling, but that doesn't help working backwards. I'd focus on the "ak" at the end of the name and allow for wide variations in the "sh". And the Y could be a J in some records. There probably wasn't ever one true standard version.


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