Wednesday, April 6, 2011

What's in a name?

While surfing genealogical web sites I came across the Gen Dobry Newsletter and wrote to it's editor, Fred Hoffman, to compliment him on the newsletter and get myself on his mailing list. Fred is the author of Polish Surnames: Origins and Meanings.

In my email, I asked if he'd ever come across the Grala surname. I never expected him to reply and was amazed at the following response. I hope you find it as fascinating as I did!

Dear Judi:

Back in 2000, a lady named Karen Main ( wrote to ask me about this name. I doubt that email address is still good, but most of the answer I gave her is worth repeating. So I'll repeat it below, modified with some additional info I've picked up since 2000. Karen said of an ancestor (her grandfather, I think):

"The name he took or used or was given in the U.S. was "Grala". My mother says that he hailed from the Carpathian mountain region. She discovered an article in National Georgraphic that described a Polish clan that went by the name of "Gorale" (hyphen over the "o")."

The Gōrale are not really a clan, but rather a kind of sub-culture of Polish mountainmen in southern and eastern Poland, especially the Carpathian region. Because of their geographic isolation they developed a rather insular community with their own customs and such, kind of like the mountain men in the U.S., except they have persisted for centuries.

It's possible a name like Gōral (the singular of Gōrale) could be modified into Grala. Poles pronounce Gōral "GOOR-all," and from that to Grala, "GRAH-lah," is not too big a jump. I've certainly seen names distorted a lot more than that.

I should point out, however, that GRALA is a legitimate Polish name in its own right, seen in records from as far back as 1385. As of 1990, according to the database at (which covered about 94% of the population of Poland), there were 2,739 Polish citizens named GRALA. The largest numbers lived in the following provinces: Kalisz 234, Katowice 212, Lodz 327, Ostroleka 308, Poznan 187 and Sieradz 119.

For more recent data (and more accurate) from 2002, see here: It gives the number as 2,940 and shows the name is found all over, with the largest number (267) in Ostroleka, in northeastern Poland. Still, there is not really enough to give you a reliable notion where a specific Grala family came from. Only research into the family history might uncover that. In your case, it's great to know he came from Baba -- but which Baba? There are 8 places in modern Poland named Baba or with Baba as part of their name. I note, however, that the largest, a village of 330 persons, in Ostroleka county -- the same county with the largest number of Gralas. It's not wise to jump to conclusions, but you have to wonder if this is telling us something?

As for the linguistic origin of the name, Polish name expert Prof. Kazimierz Rymut mantions GRALA in his book Nazwiska Polakow (The Surnames of Poles). He says it can come from the German name Grall, or it can also come sometimes from the root "gra" meaning "to play". GRAŁA, with a slash through the L giving it the sound of our W, is a name meaning "player, one who plays an instrument". It's pretty rare, however, since only 24 Poles bore that name as of 1990 (35 as of 2002). Sometimes names with GRAŁA also have forms with plain L, so GRALA and GRAŁA could sometimes be variants of the same basic name.

By the same token, there were 8,439 Poles named Gōral in 2002, living all over Poland, expecially in the south.

I checked for info on the German name GRALL, but found nothing on it. The Duden Familiennamen, a good book on German names, does mention GRAHL, which is prnounced essentially the same. It says that name can come from an old Germanic term meanin "angry", or from an old Germanic term meaning "noise, upror, boisterousness", or from the Middle High German word for "grail", or from a place name such as Graal in the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern region.

So, we have a real variety of possible origns to choose from, all of the plausible. Over the centuries, lots of Germans settled all over Poland, and it's not at all rare to find German names borne by Polish citizens. So GRALA could very well have started our as "(son/kin) of Gral", referring to a German named Grall or Grahl. Perhaps he was an angry sort, maybe he was noisy and boisterous, maybe he came from Graal. Then again, he could have been a native Pole who was a "player" in some sense. There's really no way to say for sure.

I doubt the connection with "Gōral" would prove relevant, unless research into the family history proves that the family originally came from the mountainous regions of southern Poland. I'd go with eithr "son of Gral" or "the player". Rymut seemed to think "son of Gral" was the more likely explanation. But as always, a lot depends on what your research turns up.

That's about all I can tell you. I hope it's some help, and wish you the best of luck with your research.

Fred Hoffman
Author, Polish Surnames: Origins & Meanings