While working on a research problem in preparation for a consultation, I wanted to determine how common the surname Kucera was in the Czech Republic. A name that seems fairly unusual here in the United States is often as common as Smith back in the old country. I found a web site, Czech Surnames, that gave a great deal of information about the origins of different Czech surnames, but also had a listing of the top 20 most popular surnames in the country for the years 1937, 1964, and 1996. I discovered that Kucera, which means “curly,” was and is the ninth most common surname in the country. For the research problem in the consultation this was not necessarily good news, but it substantiated the above premise.
However, since I never stop at the surface with any research I do, I found myself looking through the top 20 list for what other surnames meant. At the end of that list there was a link to another page with more surnames, again with their meanings. It was while I was browsing through this list that I was struck when I saw the surname of Krejci – not from my research preparation but from my interest in hockey. David Krejci currently plays for the Boston Bruins. In looking at the meaning of his last name, I discovered that it was an occupational surname meaning tailor.
This reminded me of how often I have seen the Anglicization of a surname that looks very dramatic, but in actuality is simply the English word for the occupational surname. So your TAYLOR ancestor who is from Bohemia may have started out as KREJCI. Your CARPENTER ancestor from Germany would likely be ZIMMERMAN and if Czech in origin it could be TESAR or TESARIK. Some are not as dramatic, such as the German surname FISCHER becomes FISHER. But if your ancestor was Czech the occupational surname for a fisherman could be RYBAR (in addition to the more traditional German variation also seen in the Czech Republic).
Here are some other occupation Czech surnames:
- KADLEC – weaver
- KOLAR – cardwright
- KOVAR – a smith
- SEDLAK – farmer
- VOJAK – soldier
One interesting aspect of some of the Czech surnames is that the artisans sometimes have nicknames derived from tools of the trade or something else associated with their business. For instance, someone with the surname JEHLICKA, which means needle, was likely a tailor, so TAYLOR would be the anglicized version of the name. The surname ROHLICEK, which means “a roll,” could change to BAKER once in America.
As in other localities, Czechs also have surnames derived from physical features or attributes, those derived from localities, regions, and foreign countries, or those representing plants and animals.
One of the most interesting things about family history can be the surname, and in fact it is often the one item we spend the least time researching, especially when it comes to our immigrant ancestors. In addition to tracing the family back, we should definitely consider the implications of the origins of the surname. It could open a research avenue for American genealogists.