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Cwenar - Cwynar - Gerlach - Gierlach
Created by Administrator Account in 5/19/2010 12:10:56 PM

...The surname is unusual, but Polish. As of this writing, I am under the impression that there are under 150 households in the world with this name: Gierlach. The man who died in the 1850's, lived in the area of Pozen, or Posen. My research has brought me to the eastern area of Galicia -- the Krosno province -- in the mid 1870's. I would like to know further about the meaning of my surname, because I find it interesting that this rare name can have relations living so far apart, or maybe back then the name was more common -?? ...

Gierlach is a slightly Polonized version of the ancient German first name Gerlach, from the roots ger, "spear" + lach, thought to be connected with roots meaning "jump" and "war-game." So it's one of those ancient names from pagan times, when parents gave their kids names meant to be good omens for them; naming a boy Gerlach was expressing a hope he would excel with the spear in martial activities. Here is a listing of the 3 most common spellings of this name in Poland, the number of Poles with each name as of the year 1990, and the provinces in which the largest numbers lived (I don't have access to details such as first names and addresses, so what you see here is all I can offer):

GERLACH 782: Warsaw 66, Jelenia Gora 38, Katowice 64, Krosno 94, Legnica 32, Slupsk 32, Walbrzych 34, Zielona Gora 30

GIERLACH 562; Katowice 44, Krosno 191, Rzeszow 67 (only 11 in Poznan province as of 1990)

GIERŁACH 165: Opole 36, Tarnobrzeg 87

Most provinces of Poland have a few people by these names living in them, these are the ones that seem to have significant concentrations. It's interesting that southeastern Poland, i. e., Galicia, is where the main concentration of Gierlach's and Gierłach's live (Ł sounds like our w); but Gerlach is also common in the western provinces formerly ruled by Germany. All this makes sense: there are many German names in Poland, including most of the western part, but also in Krosno and Rzeszow province, where Germans came as colonists in the Middle Ages, at the invitation of nobles, to help beef up the local economy and repopulate areas devastated by the Black Death, and also later as prisoners of war... One other thing that affects this data is the fact after World War II millions of people were forced to relocate from eastern Poland and western Ukraine to western Poland; so those numbers in Opole and Katowice provinces might also include folks who were living in eastern Poland before 1945.

...The other name I am having trouble with is Cwenar - or is it Cwynar ?? Many documents have it spelled one way or the other for the same person (US documents). Are these spellings one and the same? Also, conflicting stories put this person as Polish from Galician area, or "White Russian" which would put her in Byelorussia (maybe this is incorrect, I am uncertain about the term "White Russian")...

Well, Belarus (as it's called now) and Byelorussia and Belorussia are all the same; Belarus is the name of the country in Belarusian, the others are attempts to represent the name in Latin, spellings that later were imported into English. Belarus means "White Rus'," where Rus' is the Slavic root that has (somewhat inaccurately) been rendered as "Russia." Belarus is just east of Poland, north of Ukraine; its language is very similar to Ukrainian and Russian. Due to the history of the area, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Poles are well pretty mixed together in the area east of Poland's modern borders and west of Russia. For centuries the Poles ruled those regions, and Polish became the language of the upper classes for a long time. In a particular instance it can be tough telling whether a name is Polish, Belarusian, Ukrainian or Russian (Lithuanian is usually easier to tell). Just going by its form, this name could be any of them, although the spelling Cwynar/Cwenar is definitely by Polish phonetic values.

In my book I had to list Cwynar as one I couldn't figure out. It's a fairly common name, as of 1990 there were 1,980 Polish citizens named Cwynar; they were most common in the provinces of: Katowice 138, Krosno 266, Opole 122, Przemysl 230, Rzeszow 475, Wroclaw 130. Notice again that the southeastern provinces of Krosno, Przemysl, and Rzeszow come up big, as do some of the provinces Galicians were forced to move to after World War II (Wroclaw, Katowice, and Opole).

The name can also be spelled Cwenar, as of 1990 there were 203 Poles by that name (distribution roughly the same as Cwynar). In some parts of Poland, especially southeast Poland, it isn't at all unusual to see e and y switch. But Cwynar appears to be the more common form.

In view of the geographical distribution of Cwenar/Cwynar, it seems likely it is of either German or Ukrainian origin -- tough to tell which. The -ar suffix is often a tip-off that you're dealing with a name that started out German, with -er; so German Zwiener, Zwinner, Zweiner are theoretical possibilities. Of those, the only one I can find in my sources is Zweiner, "quarrelsome person." It's interesting that Ukrainian has a noun tsvenik (by Polish phonetics that would be Cwenik) that means "braggart, boaster, gossiper." The problem is, Ukrainian and Polish also use the suffix -ar (in Polish it's usually -arz) much the same way as German uses -er; so I have no way to be even halfway sure what the name comes from. I suspect it's either from German Zweiner or Ukrainian Tsvenik; but I can't say with any certainty.

...Also, someone has told me that this is only actually a part of a name, not the full one...

Possibly, but there's no compelling reason to think so. As I said, some 1,980 Poles have the name Cwynar, and probably more in Ukraine -- why jump to the conclusion the name was shortened when data says this form is clearly a common name? To be honest, I get a little fed up with people who shoot off their mouths with checking to see if there's any data; and many of the folks who contact me have been fed a line of bull by such "experts."

Copyright © 1998 W.F. Hoffman. All rights reserved. Used by permission.




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