Dealing with Personal Names in Hungarian Family History Research.


Much of this topic remains under construction.

We 21st century Americans tend to think our way of doing things is "right" and that no other way is acceptable. We tend toward rigidity in many aspects of life. Names are one of them. We believe that when a name is put on a birth certificate, that's it. If it says Stephan (as is the much-lamented case of our son) your name IS "Stephan" not "Stephen" or "Steven" or "Steve." We consider the "birth certificate" to be an official, legal, government document. Your teacher will probably call you Stephan ... you will have to use Stephan on many official forms ... if you get into trouble, the newspaper will print Stephan (with any middle names that appeared on the birth certificate), etc. etc. If you subscribe to that sort of rigidity, you will have a difficult time when you start to research your Hungarian family history.

Over a lifetime in Hungarian church records, you may find a single ancestor referred to by perhaps a half-dozen variations in spelling, language, abbreviation, and informality. And that only applies to their given name(s) and doesn't take into consideration the possibility of errors. While I fully understand the reasons for most of these name variations, that does not ease the difficulty in dealing with them. Variations in the spelling of names present many practical problems, especially when we enter the information into a computer database and hope to sort it and produce intelligible reports. My goal here is to answer your questions about why name variations occurred, to prepare you for the variations you will find in church registers, and make practical suggestions about how you might deal with name variations. Please remember, this is a very "grey area" ... there is no "right" or "wrong" way of doing things ... you must decide how you want to deal with the problem yourself.

An example of variations you may find for the English given name Stephen or Steven

Magyar: István
Magyar Abbreviations: Ist. or Istv.
Magyar Nicknames: Isti, Pista, Pisti, Pistika, Pistuka, Pityu
Latin: Stephanus
German: Stefan or Stephan
Slavic: Stefán

A general discussion of the "Personal Name" topics follows. Either scroll through the following material, or click on links to the topics that interest you. Then use the links below to look up variations of common given names in the tables provided. I will be continuously adding to these tables.

Why do name variations exist?

Finding names in church registers?

What are the concerns regarding given names?

What are the derivations and meanings of family names?

When family names change, what problems are created?

How should names be standardized for computer input?

Table of Common Male Given Names.

Table of Common Female Given Names.

When done, simply close this window (or tab).

Reasons for Variations in Given and Family Names

Back to Top of Language Issues

  • Spelling.

  • Literacy.

  • Translation.

  • Magyarization.

Finding Names in Church Registers

Back to Top of Language Issues

One of the first things we Americans learn about Hungarians is that they write their names "backwards" ... family name followed by given name(s). John Smith, if he was a Magyar would be referred to as Kovács János. No other Europeans do this. Unfortunately, it's not quite as simple as always reversing the two names. Hungarian church registers are not all written in the Magyar language. Many are in Latin, some in German, some in Slovak (or other Slavic languages), probably a few are in Greek, Romanian, Armenian, and Hebrew as well ... though, I've never dealt with any of those. Name ordering is usually a minor issue, but it is only one of the stumbling blocks to correctly identifying the names in a church register entry.

  • Language Conventions. In the latter part of the 19th century, all Hungarian church registers were in the Hungarian (Magyar) language. In these the standard convention of family name first is rigidly complied with. Earlier in that century, most Roman Catholic registers were in Latin and most Protestant registers were in Magyar. In the 18th century, the majority of registers (Catholic and Protestant) were in Latin -- though you will often find Magyar-language registers. A few German language registers are found in Lutheran congregations. Both Latin and German use the same naming order that we do in America ... given name(s) followed by the family name. For other issues on this topic go to the Language Conventions of Church Registers topic.

  • Translation of Names. It is rare that a single register entry mixes two languages. Therefore, when studying an entry, first determine its language. If it is in Latin, expect the given name to come first, and that it be the Latin form of the name. The family name will follow and it is almost always the name in its original ethnicity (Magyar, German, Slovak, etc). [For instance, the family name Molnár meaning miller would not be translated to Molitor, the Latin word for miller.] So the same man would be referred to in a Latin-language register as Stephanus Molnár and in a Magyar-language register as Molnár István. There is one exception I have found to the "no translation of family names" rule. Protestant clergymen (and their families) up until about 1800 sometimes used a Latinized version of their family name. For instance, several generations of my Fekete ancestors used Nigrini. This issue is discussed more in the section on Changing Family Names below.

  • Finding Names in Entries. Another concern is to find the name(s) in an entry. This is not a problem if the register is well structured or the pages consist of printed forms. It can be difficult when an entry consists of unstructured text, sometimes not even proper sentences. Often, someone made it easy for you by underlining the names. Be careful though, I have found occasions that this must have been done at a later date and was done incorrectly. The difficulty in finding names in an unstructured entry often is confusion between the name itself, the name of the town the person lived in, and a title. Here are some of the things to watch out for:
    • Ambiguity between a personal and town name. Many entries begin with a town name, for example: "szegedi Tolnai István" means "Stephen Tolnai of Szeged." That's pretty obvious, because personal names are capitalized and adjectives formed from names (such as szegedi in the example) are not. But, at the beginning of the entry (ie. sentence) the "S" in szegedi would usually be capitalized, making the entry seemingly ambiguous (see Antenames below). See whether adjacent entries all begin with place of residence, if they do, this is probably one also. Also, note that "Hélybeli" is neither a town of residence nor a name! It means "local" -- that is, the person resides locally.
    • Confusion from the use of Nemes. The word "Nemes" means nobleman, and during certain periods was used in church registers to identify both men and women of gentry families -- who, in some areas, existed in rather substantial numbers. The title was often used as a prefix to the person's name. If abbreviated as "Ns" it is fairly obvious. [The other abbreviation, simply an "N" though has it's own problems, see discussion in the section on Antenames below.] But, if Nemes is written out, it can cause confusion in two ways: (1) though rather uncommon, there is a family name Nemes; (2) because of the peculiar way that the lower-case letter "t" was often written, it looks like an "s" -- especially at the end of a word. Therefore, is is often difficult to distinguish between the title Nemes and the very common family name Német. Usually, it's only the accent over the first "e" in Német that gives it away. Be careful.
    • Separating out successive names. Sometimes it's difficult to figure out entries like Tamás Pál István fiu. Is it Thomas, the son of Stephen Pál, who is being baptized? or Stephen, the son of Paul Tamás? If you're confused about who is the father, and who is the son, look for nearby entries. If you see something like: "Erse Pál István leány" (Lizzie, the daughter of Stephen Pál) you can be certain of the pattern being used.

  • Two-part Family Names. There are numerous examples of two-part family names. The first part, the antename, sometimes is called the noble predicate and can be indicative of nobility -- analogous to the German von. Often such antenames referred to a place-of-origin, for example Szegedi or Tolnai. In other cases, two-part family names were simply used to distinguish between families when their name was common in a given locale. An alias is not what I'm talking about here. Those are treated separately in the section of this topic on Changing Family Names below.

    In any case one distinguishing characteristic of 2-part names is that the first part is often abbreviated. The most common such abbreviations are "K" for Kis and "N" for Nagy. Unfortunately, the latter can lead to confusion since "N" is also an abbreviation for Nemes. Does "N. Molnár István" mean "Stephen Nagy Molnár" or "the nobleman Stephen Molnár" -- you can't tell without knowing the family context. Of course, without family context, it may be difficult to determine the meaning of any abbreviation used in a two-part name.

  • Women's Names.

  • Titles and Seniority.

Concerns About Given Names

Back to Top of Language Issues

  • Translation of Given Names.

  • Spelling Changes and Variations.

  • Use of Nicknames and Abbreviations.

  • Magyarization and Americanization.

  • Need for Standardization.

Meaning and Derivation of Family Names

Back to Top of Language Issues

It is often of interest to know the derivation or meaning of a family name. The great bulk of Hungarian (Magyar) family names are based on physical (or other) characteristics; an occupation; ethnicity; a place-of-origin; a forefather's name (ie. a patronymic); or social status. The real origin, and its rationale, for most family names is usually lost in history. If you want to find the derivation of names in your family tree, you will need both a dictionary and a good atlas, since so many names relate to place of origin. But always remember, just because it’s your name doesn’t mean it characterizes you or any ancestor you're likely to encounter - though sometime in the distant past there was probably a reason for attaching that name to someone in your family line. There are probably more Horváth's in Hungary than people in Croatia, and there are innumerable large people named Kis.

  • Characteristics. Many names based on characteristics are quite common and quite obvious. That is certainly the case for names such as Nagy (large) and Kis (small); also for Fekete (black or dark), Fehér (white or light), Fodor (curly-haired), Balog (left-handed), and Kerekes (rotund). The meaning of some names which are non-physical characteristics are also obvious; for instance Bátor (brave), Boros (tipsy ie. wine-loving), Farkas (wolf-like), Kardos (energetic), and Kemény (hard). There may be ambiguity about the intent of some names that seem to be characteristics. For instance Sörös (and its variation Seres) literally means beery -- it's probably a characteristic, but could it relate to an occupation?

  • Occupation. Occupational names tend to be obvious and easily identified using a dictionary. They are included among the most common Hungarian names, for instance Kovács (blacksmith) and Szabó (tailor). There are also many other quite common occupational names. Examples are Bakó (executioner), Biró (judge), Bodnár (cooper ie. barrelmaker), Bognár (cartwright or wheelwright), Csizmádia (bootmaker), Faragó (woodcarver), Fazekás (potter), Halász (fisherman), Juhász (shepherd), Katona (soldier), Kertész (gardener), Mészáros (butcher), Molnár (miller), Pálinkás (whisky maker), Pap (clergyman), Révész (ferryman), Takács (weaver), and Varga (shoemaker). Let me give examples of a couple of other family names which are probably occupational, but don't seem so at first glance: Király which means King and Gróf which means Count obviously don't imply an ancestor held one of these exalted positions, but probably that an ancestor was a royal or aristocratic servant. It's interesting that none of the most common names pertain to farmer or other term for tiller of the soil. The closest are Gazda (land-owner) and Major (farmstead), but neither is particularly common. Note that Földesi is a place-of-origin name, not an occupational name. Since the great bulk of the population farmed, I suppose that type of name wouldn't help identify an individual ... and isn't that the point of a name?

  • Ethnicity. Some of the most common Hungarian names imply some ethnicity from the distant past. The obvious examples include: Horváth (the Croatian), Németh (the German), Rácz (the Serb), Tóth (the Slovak), Lengyel (the Pole), Török (the Turk), and Orosz (the Russian). Another seemingly obvious ethnic name is Magyar ... but, this may sometimes have a different explanation. When gypsies (now usually referred to as Roma) gave up their wandering life, and settled down in the villages, they were for a time referred to by the name Új Magyar (the new Hungarian). In some cases this evolved into Magyar or perhaps just Új or Újj and maybe was later changed to an occupational or other name. Don't be surprised to see the "family name" Új Magyar or Újj listed quite frequently in late 18th and early 19th century church records. Two other ethnically-inspired, but rather uncommon, family names Czigány (meaning Gypsy) and Zsidó (meaning Jewish) pop up from time-to-time. The latter I found in a locally-prominent Reformed family -- the name perhaps indicating a mixed marriage in the distant past. For further information see Changing Family Names below.

  • Place-of-Origin. The name of every county, city, and village in Hungary (which exists now or formerly existed) can become a family name simply by appending the letter "i" to the place name ... which results in the meaning from this place. For instance the name Tolnai means a person from Tolna County (or perhaps the village of Tolna in that County). The name Szegedi means a person from the city of Szeged. Since, above, I used as examples the family names of two of the most famous living Hungarian-Americans (Andy Grove and George Soros), I will now feel free to also use my family name as an example. Berecz is actually a place-of-origin family name. There is a village in Transylvania named Bereczk -- now in central Romania. A person with origins in Bereczk may be named Bereczki. Berecz, I believe, is only a shortened variation of Bereczki. [Some would differ, but I've seen the two names used interchangably for the same person in my family in the 18th century.] So here's something to keep in mind when thinking about the origin of names: most ... but not all ... family names ending in "i" are place-of-origin names, yet some place-of-origin names don't necessarily end in an "i". See also the tutorial on Spelling Changes in the 18th and 19th Centuries, particularly the usage of the now obsolete letter ˙ at the end of place-of-origin names.

  • Patronymics. Patronymics were not used as frequently in Hungary as they were in northern Europe (England, Scandinavia, Germany, and Russia). There is a patronymic ending in Magyar -- it is "fi" which is short for "fiú" (son). Therefore some family names ending in "fi" are patronymics, though by no means all are. Examples are Mihályfi and probably Petöfi. But, in more cases, a first name -- almost always male -- simply became the family name and is pseudo-patronymic. Common examples are the common family names Lukács, Pál, László, and Tamás. While the ancient origins of such names cannot be identified for most family lines, some evolved in the period when church registers documented their evolution. For instance, one town I've worked with had many Kis families. Their family names evolved into Kis György, Kis Pál, Kis Ádam, etc. so that they were distinguishable in the records. Presumably, a "György" "Pál" and "Ádam" were the given names of a remembered ancestor of their respective lines. Over time some of these were abbreviated, for example to K. Pál, and eventually it may end up being simply Pál. The evolution of names didn't always work this way, so for further information see Changing Family Names below. [Note: many Slavic names found in Hungary end with "ics" which is a Slavic patronymic ending. One such name that is often seen is Kovácsics but there are many others.]

  • Social Status. A few names that we occasionally find imply social status of an ancestor. The most obvious family names of this sort are Jobággy (peasant or serf*), Polgár (citizen usually of a larger town or city), or Nemes (nobleman). By the way, as with most names, some Nemes families were noblemen, some were not. In fact, like Király and Gróf, Nemes may be occupational, simply indicating an ancestor was a servant to someone. Another rather common name that fits into this catagory is Szabados which literally means freeman. The term was used to describe peasants who purchased their freedom. [*Note: I don't like, and rarely use, the term serf because it had so many very different meanings in various times and places. The relationship between Hungary's large landowners and peasants changed greatly over the centuries. Arguably, it became most exploitive after "serfdom" was abolished in 1848. That's why so many of our ancestors came to America!.]

  • Other Names. The family names that do not fit into one of the above categories are few and far between. If fact, most such names probably do fit, but are based on an obsolete word, or a village which no longer exists. We simply can't easily determine the origin. There also are many names used in Hungary which are not of Magyar origin ... they originate in German, Romanian, all the Slavic languages. Such names follow their own rules for derivation and generally are not considered here. Again, sometimes the langauge of origin is not easily descernable.

    The only example of a Hungarian name I can think of that definitely falls into this "other" category ... in other words, it's provably none of the above ... is the name Heszlényi from my family tree. It is a totally artificial name (ie. made up in relatively modern times). It is the result of the "magyarization" efforts of the 19th century. You may happen upon other family names that were similarly inspired. For further information see Changing Family Names below. In any case, I will repeat, the derivation of a name is not really important to your family history research ... it is simply a matter of interest to many people.

The "Why and How" of Changing Family Names

Back to Top of Language Issues

  • Names as Identifiers.

  • Spelling Variations.

  • Translation of Family Names.

  • Use of Aliases.

  • Magyarization.

  • Legal Name Changes.

  • Americanization.

An Approach to Standardizing Names for Computer Input

Back to Top of Language Issues

  • Why Standardize?

  • Hungarian-Americans.

  • Diacritical Marks.

  • Standard Given Names.

  • Standard Family Names.

  • The Downside to Standardization.

Common Male Given Names

Back to Top of Language Issues

Common Female Given Names

Back to Top of Language Issues

When done, simply close this window (or tab).

The Personal Names webpage last updated on 21 Oct 2011.