Thursday, January 12, 2006

The contest of last names

Dave Wischnowsky is a blogger and reporter for the Chicago Tribune. Chicago, as is well-known, has a lot of Poles. Not quite as many as Warsaw, but still quite a few. Mr. Wischnowsky gave word to a lot of thoughts I have when people comment about my last name (if only I had a dime for every, "Boy, I bet you had a hard time learning that in school"). He asked for other people's input on their last names and I sent this in reply:

OK, Mr. Wischnowsky, try this one on for size -- 12 letters and it has three Z's, a letter your name is completely lacking. Those Z's always throw people off.

Yes, I attribute half of my intelligence to having my last name, including my ability to spell.

After I asked my father-in-law (a Gibson) for permission to marry his one and only daughter out of nine children (which he obviously granted), he told her, "He takes your name!" He has never learned to spell it, never mind pronounce it. He did tell me that he once met a guy from Poland who had 15 letters and 4 Z's. (It must be remembered, however, that as an Irishman he is prone to exaggeration.)

Talk about school troubles -- the standardized tests never had enough space for my last name; I think I would get to around the "w" before running out of room. I guess they figured the teachers would know who it was after 9 letters. And when on the first day of class the teacher was going through the alphabetical list of students, I always knew when she got to me. "Thomas....Thomas....." "Yes, I'm here."

You got called "Wisconsin"; I got "skunk cabbage" and "three z's". When my father was in the Navy and my brother was in the Coast Guard, somehow or other they ended being called "Ski." Go figure.

My surname has given me the name of my writing business since "szyszka" means "pine cone" in Polish. With my e-mail address, some of my clients have now resorted to calling me "Polish Pine Cone."

When I get calls from people who don't know me, it's always, "Is this Thomas.....I'm sorry I don't know how to say it. Can I call you 'Tom'?" And when I'm ordering something over the phone, I don't even bother saying it. "The first name is Thomas and I'll spell the last name for you. It's 's' like 'Sam,' 'z' like 'zebra'....."

The most common mispronunciation? Siskawitz. The real pronounciation? In Polish, it's shish-KIEV-ich. That middle vowel sound is tough, though. You don't make it sound like Kiev. You kind of have to say the long 'i' and 'e' really quickly and smash the two sounds together to get the correct pronunciation. In English, I take out the "sh" and middle vowel sounds so it ends up as "sis-KEV-itch."

People have asked my why I don't shorten it. Well, it's my name. It's the name given me by my father and has been in the family for who knows how many generations. I'm told it has noble heritage. It's fairly unique (there is one in Chicago somewhere). Why give it up? Besides, it's a challenge to their minds. It expands their horizons. It makes our country more diverse.

Still, it has nothing on the name of a priest I know in Wisconsin. Przybylski -- pronounced "shibilski." Or another Polish priest I know serving at a mission parish in Peru -- Kolodziejczyk. Go Poland. Teach the rest of the world what humans can really do with their tongues.


Barb, sfo said...

Couldn't resist answering that one myself. Visit my blog to read my response.

alicia said...

I had a friend in 8th grade whose name was Claire Czepyha ( I think I remember the spelling right, it was pronounced chuh pay hah)

Therese Szyszkiewicz said...

I have avoided posting anything on Tom's blog, but wanted to give my two cents worth from someone aquiring the name. I even agree that my father being Irish does exagerate (it runs in the family:-) For someone coming into the 'family', it has not always been easy spelling the name. It has't always rolled right off my tongue (or my finger tips either). I have to think about it when I sign anything. Spelling out loud is a little easier. I have to say that I have learned a few things about Polish pronunciation. Actually, I think it was my older brother who first labled Tom '3Z'? Coming from a Gibson clan has had endless amount of fun with our last name.

Tony S said...

In school I was called Skelly since it was a Irish Catholic school. None of the nuns could say my name right so they just said Anthony S. or skelly. It was rough. Today my grand children are going through the same thing. As I got older and went into the service I was called 3zs and again tony s the irish name left me. Even today when I go to the Doctor the nurses mispronounce Szyszkiewicz they use syskowitz, I have been going to the same doctor for at least 25 years and he don't even say it right. I have heard a lot of people get toung tied saying it that it makes me quiver.

Carole S said...

I too married into the "Szyszkiewicz"
Family. I've been married for 15 years and I still have to think about the spelling every time I sign my name. But, my children's friends have no problem pronouncing our last name. Doesn't say much for the adults. The most frequent question I get about my last name is..."What was your maiden name?" Would you like to know...Szep and no it wasn't shortened.