Belarusian names popular today
Why are some first names and family names popular while others are already forgotten? I learn about the history of Belarusians’ family names at the National Academy of Sciences and ask a registry office about popular names.
Twenty percent belong to nobility
If there is such a nation as Belarus then there should be purely Belarusian family names. In the mid-20th century, academician Nikolay Birillo began searching for Belarusian family names at the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Language and Literature. Since then, his works have been addressed by those wishing to know the origins of their name.
True Belarusian family names end with ‘vich’, such as Mitskevich or Yanushkevich. Mr. Birillo also asserted that such family names denote noble lineage and that these account for over 10 percent of Belarusians! The same number of people have family names ending with ‘sky’ — also denoting nobility: Dubrovsky, Ivanovsky or Pavlovsky. Those with ‘vich’ and ‘sky’ mostly live in the west of the country, while some reside in Poland and Lithuania. Scientists say that names ending ‘vich’ appeared in the 15th century while those with ‘sky’ date back to the 17th century. Meanwhile, names ending with ‘ov’ — such as Ivanov — only appeared in the 19th century; they are similar to those met in Russia and Ukraine.
Belarusian family names are certainly to be found in neighbouring countries but are there any which are specific only to our republic?
“It isn’t useful to distinguish family names on the basis of their ‘nationality’,” notes researcher Yulia Gurskaya. She is continuing Mr. Birillo’s studies and says, “It’s an undisputable truth that neighbouring nations have many similar family names. People always move from one place to another. When we speak about Belarusian family names, we mean those typical here for at least a century. Such names are common and are often found on ancient birth certificates and charters. Family names of Jews and Tartars who settled in our country over 600 years ago are also Belarusian family names. However, there is another approach — to consider only those names which can be explained in Belarusian language. If this method is applied then most family names in modern Belarus are viewed as foreign.”
Belarusian names do boast unique national features, being formed from the name of professions, animals and plants: Gonchar (potter), Kravets (tailor), Doilid (architect), Zhaba (frog), Kruk (crow) and Burak (beetroot). Later, these simple names were supplemented with specific endings — depending on the locality: ‘eiko’ (Domeiko), ‘ushko’ (Adamushko), ‘ik’ (Davydik), ‘ut’ (Klimut), ‘ul’ (Matsul) or ‘un’ (Vaitkun). As a result, more complicated family names appeared.
Mr. Birillo believed he had found the most unique Belarusian family names — those ending with ‘enya’, such as Adamenya, Gerasimenya and Denisenya. About one percent of the population have these, living only in Minsk, Gomel and Brest regions. Some such families are found in Polish Bialystok purely because many Belarusians live there. Mr. Birillo failed to publish many of his studies but deciphered about 20,000 family names in Belarus. Many more remain unstudied.
Eva without Adam
Last year, sixteen girls in Minsk were named Eva, but there were no Adams registered. It’s no secret that there are more women in Belarus than men, as shown by the 2009 census. However, the distribution of a name depends not only on gender ratio; fashion is crucial.
Natalia Baranova, the Head of the Registry Office in Minsk’s Moskovsky district, has been registering newborns for 25 years. She knows all there is to know and tells us which names are popular today, “The same names do not remain popular forever. I was named Natasha, which was extremely popular about half a century ago; now it isn’t. When I was young, many girls were named Tatiana, Svetlana and Lyudmila. However, almost no Lyudmilas are registered now. Where have they gone? Film and book characters have always been popular and, today, parents are choosing names relating to the church calendar. Unusual cases do occur. One young man — named Alexander — wanted to change his patronymic as he wasn’t keen on being called San Sanych. This was an important reason of course. He became Alexeevich instead of Alexandrovich. Later, on entering a theological seminary, he was told he’d committed a sin in rejecting his true patronymic, so he returned to us to change it back.”
Gift from Virgin Mary
Among the rarest names are Taisia, Dominika, Karolina and Evelina. Vera, Nadezhda and Lyubov are also less popular, unlike Sofia (translated from the Greek as wise). Other leading names for girls are Darya, Anastasia, Anna, Maria, Polina, Yelizaveta, Ksenia, Alexandra and Victoria. For boys, Alexander is popular, while Victor has lost its popularity. Vladislav, Artem, Ivan, Yegor, Maxim, Alexey, Nikita, Ilya and Daniil are also very fashionable at present.
Double names are rarely met, apart from in the Catholic regions of Brest and Grodno. However, an interesting case has been registered in Minsk. A 28 year old mother and 32 year old father named their daughter Yelizaveta — inventing it long before the birth of their little girl. However, the baby was born needing help to breathe. Her mother prayed to the Virgin Mary and a miracle happened; their daughter recovered. The parents then decided to add another name, so their daughter became Yelizaveta-Maria — in honour of the saint who saved her life.
Most Belarusian names are Christian in their origin and among them are official and colloquial forms. A man may be named Ivan in his passport but be called Yan or Yanka at home. Alexander can become Ales in Belarusian while Alexandra can be shortened to Alesya. Specific national names can be denoted in passports but Ms. Baranova seldom meets such requests. “Belarusians are conservative in name choosing and people love it when their passport name coincides with that given during baptism and that used at home. Belarusians are responsible in selecting names, as they see them not as labels but as names that may govern destiny,” she says.
By Viktar Korbut