Among your Czech friends and family, the meaning and origin of some names are self-explanatory. Černý is black and Novák, the most common surname, comes from nový usedlík – new resident. But some names bear closer inspection.
Using an adjective as a surname is common in many languages. However, what these names describe might not be so clear cut.
Bosý – From an English-speakers perspective this name could already sound odd. Bossy, anyone? But the name, which means, ‘barefoot’ may be from mendicant monks, who wore no shoes.
Drobný – While the word literally means ‘tiny’ or ‘petty’, the name may have derived from droby – meaning offal. The name denoted people who sold this foodstuff.
Krutý – What have you done to get the surname ‘cruel’? One possibility is that it was assigned quite literally, for people who were tough or even evil. The surname Zlý could have been given for the same reason. Another explanation for the surname Krutý is that it comes from krůta – which means turkey.
Křehký –Two possibilities for how ‘fragile’or ‘tender’ became a family name have been put forward. Křehký comes from another surname Křefký. Or it stems from zkřehlý meaning to be numb or cold, though why they were surnames is not clear.
Lichý – The word has two meanings in Czech – odd, as in an odd number, or false. It is the latter meaning from which the surname developed.
Nejedlý – Firstly, there is no record of the surname ‘Jedlý’, though advertising oneself as ‘edible’ is hardly the best way to pass your name to future generations. (There is the name Jedla – but that means fir tree.) Nor does the name ‘Nejedlý’ appear to be away to ward off potential predators. The name likely stemmed from a description for an unpleasant person.
Families and Other Animals
A number of Czech names come from animals, but in some cases, these names seem quite surprising.
Hroch – How could someone come to be named after a ‘hippopotamus’ when the animals are not exactly native to this part of the world? The most likely theory is that the name comes from the same root as rook, as in the chess piece, which is the Persian word rokh. This is also the root for the Czech word for hippopotamus.
Klokan is another animal name which is appears to be coincidence. The Czech word klokan was coined in the nineteenth century, several decades after kangaroos became known in Europe for the first time. The animal is named after ‘skokan’- meaning something which jumps. The surname, however, comes from the word klokat – as in the sound a horse makes while moving.
Slon – The question asked about Hroch could be asked about Slon. Elephants are not found roaming in the wild here. Again. the surname and the animal appear to share the common origin in the word slonit – an old word for lean. Why this became the Czech name for elephant is not entirely clear. One theory is that it is from the belief elephants lean on trees while sleeping. Another theory is that it is a corruption of the Turkish word ‘aslan’ (or ‘arslan’) – meaning lion. Nor is it entirely clear why this would be used as a surname. Dobrava Moldanová writes that the name could come from the word slonek, which referred to ‘four bunches of buckwheat or hemp leaning against each other’. You could be named after worse.
Šváb – How does a person end up with the name cockroach? Once again it could be the shared roots of the surname and animal’s name. The surname Šváb most likely refers to a Swabian, a German minority with settlements in Eastern parts of Europe. The insect’s name in Czech comes from the German word for cockroach Schabe, which could come from the verb to scrape – schaben. Another Czech name for one species of cockroach is rus (Russian). Naming cockroaches after neighboring or nearby nationalities is quite common throughout Europe.
Žižala –The Czech word for earthworm was used as a surname, for people who were from the lower classes and thus poor and undernourished.
People and Things
Social positions and physical objects also provide a source of inspiration.
Fanta – While the name is connected in the English speaking world with a certain fizzy beverage, the name in Czech stems from the word ‘fant’ meaning a forfeit or dare.
Flám – A person didn’t necessarily have to have a notorious ancestor to have the surname which means a ‘drinking binge’. The origin is more likely the word vlám – a Flemish person.
Loch – The name probably doesn’t reveal some Scottish heritage. The origin could be a German word for hole.
Nulíček is another example of names changing over. The name does not mean someone’s great-grandfather was a zero (nula). The name comes from Nohel, the diminutive of which is Nuhlíček.
Suchopárek – Dry sausage? Surely, not? A likely explanation is that it was for a very skinny person.
Žák – Many names come from a person’s profession. But you would think that a pupil (žák) would be too young to start a family line, and surely they would have chosen a more adult sounding profession. Originally, the word meant a person waiting to be in the priesthood. I guess they didn’t wait long enough and decided to start a family and so pass on their name.
Zádek – The name is another instance of linguistic coincidence – and a rather unfortunate one. As a surname it probably means person who lives at the back (Člověk, který bydlí vzadu.) However, today it also means bottom or backside.
To a non-Czech some of the most noticeable Czech surnames are those which are derived from sentences. For example, the surname Nevím must create some confusion. ‘What’s your surname?’ someone would ask ‘Nevím’ – ‘I don’t know’ the person replies. The surname Nepovím (I won’t tell.) has the same potential for cheap jokes.
Kouřím – Apparently the surname does not stem from a defiant smoker (kouřím means I smoke or I am smoking) but is from the town Kouřim (with a short ‘i’), which itself can be a surname. The town’s name comes from a legend that Grandfather Čech’s younger brother Lech marked his territory with fire and smoke (kouř), so in a way the surname derives from smoking, just not cigarettes.
A few surnames are essentially imperatives. Nejezchleb/Nejezchleba literally means “Don’t eat bread” (Nejez chleba/chléb). And why would someone be called Nechoďdomů “Don’t go home”? Other imperatives which became are Skočdopole “Jump into the field” or Osolesobě from osol sobě or ‘Salt yourself”.
Experts are not entirely certain. However Dr. Milan Harvalík from the Institute Czech languages wrote via email, “It is stated that this [imperatives were often given as surnames] usually happened under any events associated with such named person.”
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Here are but a few examples. Have you come across any names with interesting meanings or strange origins?