Thursday, November 15, 2012

Surnames "after the roof"

There are many specifics in Czech genealogy. One of those most confusing in naming people "after the roof" (or household). I have already written a blog post about Czech surnames origins, but this case is a bit more special, so I have decided to write about it. Well, what are surnames "after the roof"? In which areas can we find them? How they originated and are they still in use?

What are surnames "after the roof"?
There isn't simple answer to this question. But I'll try to explain as well as I can. I have already explained how the surnames were created - this is also valid for surnames "after the roof". 

Let's begin it as a fairy-tale. Once upon a time there was a farmer called Jan Vrba. He built himself and his family a house in a small village in Southern Bohemia. It was a new house and everyone knew Vrba family was living there. The family lived quite happily - but one day Jan was hit by an ox and died. He was young as well as his wife Anna, they had three children - and Anna wasn't able to take care for the house herself. 

She decided to marry again. She chose a handsome, a bit younger guy from neighborhood, second son of a wealthy farmer. His name was Václav Straka. They married and Václav moved to the house which was built by Jan Vrba. Everyone knew Vrba family still lived there - there was his wife and children, even the fact that she was married again and should be called Straková (remember that blog post about female surnames?), she was still called Vrbová. And her new husband? Neighbors started to call him Václav Vrba - he was living in Vrba's house, right?

 Waczlaw Kopeytko gynak Lorencz (Václav Kopejtko, else Lorenc)

Anna and Václav had few more children, some of them born with the surname Vrba, some of them with the surname Straka - because they were born in Vrba's house to father whose original surname was Straka. Almost no one remembered Václav's original surname, only the priest who married Anna and Václav, but even he sometimes wrote down Vrba instead of Straka. Václav remembered he was Straka, but he understood why his neighbors call him Vrba - he married Vrbová and moved into her house...

But then year 1786 came. Emperor Josef II. announced a decree which told people who used more surnames (which was case of Václav) to choose only one of them and use only this chosen one. Václav and Anna sat together with their children and after a long discussion surname Straka was chosen as it was Václav's original surname. 

Well, this was now official, but neighbors still called him Vrba. And as everyone in the village knew him under this surname, he was written down to the registry as Václav Straka jinak Vrba when he died. This word "jinak" is the important one here. I have prepared a table of these auxiliary words which you can find in the registries.
akaknown as

In which areas are the surnames "after the roof" most common? 
Definitely Southern Bohemia. This is an area where surnames after the roof were used very, very often. You can see them in registries, you can find them in seigniorial registers, in cadastral books and many other sources. 

You can also find them in Moravian Wallachia, a mountain area in the eastern part of Moravia. These surnames are not so common here as in Southern Bohemia. And you can find them in other parts of Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia - but fortunately not too often...

How they originated?
Origins of the oldest household surnames often hide in shadows because we have no written records which could help us discover  the original holder of this surname. 

These surnames were often "given" to a man who married a widow or a farmer's daughter and moved into her house. Then, they were given to a new owner of an old house - for example Jiří Vávra with his family bought a house from Jakub Peleška in a nearby village. When he moved in, neighbors started to call him Jiří Peleška. 

Are they still in use?
Yes. Despite the presumption that these surnames should have disappeared abt 200 years ago, they are still in use, mainly in small villages. If someone new moves in, people start to call him after the house. For example - we bought a house which was originally property of Janda family (originally means about 130 years ago in this case). Everyone knows where Janda's house is, but not too many people know where Lednický family lives... Sad, but true. :)


  1. Fascinating insight into surname histories! Very interesting post.

  2. I thought this was completely confusing when I first learned about it! But recently, a number of people in my small neighborhood sold their houses. Every single new family has introduced themselves or been identified by the name of the former owners of the houses. In real life, it makes it much easier to remember who all these people are! So somewhere in America, there is a place that thinks it's 18th century Czech. :)

    The confusing thing in genealogy, though, is when you have Strzjbrny alias Ziak and Ziak alias Zaubek in the same parish, and you are never quite sure which Ziaks are legitimately yours. :/

  3. Rose, yes, this is a common problem - one family has Ziak as family name, another as household name. I have similar cases in my husband's family tree.

    And one more about changing surnames. The surnames weren't stable in 17th century. The oldest known ancestor of my husband was married in 1688 as Matiasovsky, he had children as Uherec, Slovak, Gombar, Ungar (in three different villages because he moved a lot), he deceased as Pasar - and his grandchildren had surname Lednicky, because he came from Lednice. Finding all of his children was very hard - fortunately his name was Lukas and his wife's name Katerina and there was only one family with this combination of given names.

  4. Wow. Okay, maybe mine are easy compared to that!!

  5. Really clear explanation. I think I get it. Inhabitants "on down the line" are named after the surname of the person who built the original roof. This must be so confusing to track down in genealogical searches. Don't you love the variations in human customs and behavior?

    1. I love them but honestly, after researching couple of these "after the roof families", I love to research those families who lived in one house under one surname for three centuries :)

  6. My goodness. It's hard enough as it is. What a fascinating story. And more so that you are still experiencing the results. Thanks for the information.

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  8. I have come across several examples of names-from-roof in the course of my own research. Most of these have been in the region of Pilsen, but I also have some in Moravia.

    In the case of one family in the 18th century, the person was referred to in the entry as "Růžek secundum prædium Hynek Inferiorus". In another case, concerning one of the children many years later, the man was referred to as "Růžek seu Hynek".

    "Secundum prædium" is also a frequent way of describing name-from-roof in Latin language entries, as is the term "seu", which is a synonym for "vel" in Latin.

    1. Thanks for the additional words, Rick. There are lots of them so it's hard to record all.

  9. Thank you for this explanation. I have one case in my line where the first names are very distinctive, but the surname changes. So does my friend. A paid researcher found the birth records, but the grandfather's name changes from Vavra to Sedlacek and back again. Again, more unique names -- Matej and Rosalie and the same house number, so you have to assume it's the same couple, but now there's an explanation.

    The French Canadians had something similar -- dit. When too many had the same name, they added on dit -- "also called" -- and after a generation or two the name before the dit would drop off.

  10. interesting. this may confuse those of us who are doing DNA searches of our ancestors.

  11. ...Im Czech living in Slovakia so my knowledges about these 2 countries plus Moravia, of course, there are my roots, are quite different from yours but doesnt matter....I like this story and explanation ...everything about us is something new for you....well, if I come to USA will be lost....thank you very much...

  12. Thank you, Blanka, I had no idea about naming people after the household. That complicates my research a bit.

    How do you say this concept in Czech? "Jméno podle střechy"?

  13. My husband is Czech hence my interest here, I have to tell you i LOVED reading this and can't wait to share the story as you told it with the whole family. Thank you SO, SO much

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