Monday, February 7, 2011

What's in a name

A research goal that I frequently see from folks starting to chase their ancestry back to Europe is “I want to know the original (or, correct) spelling of my last name.”  In many cases, there simply isn’t a cut & dried original spelling.  Spelling (whether names or any other words) used to be more fluid than today; people didn’t carry around a driver’s license with their name spelled the same way every time it was used for ID; and officials of various nationalities were in charge recording names on documents at different times. Imagine if every time you filled out a form, the spelling of your name depended on whether the current U.S. president was a Democrat or a Republican.  That’s kind of what it’s like to chase down a name in the Slovak parish and census records. I’ve seen records in Latin, Hungarian, German, something written in Cyrillic, something that looked like Slovak or Czech but isn’t quite either one, and occasionally, oh yes, Slovak!

I guess I was lucky that this whole question of the spelling of my surname had a known answer all along. I was always told by my father that the Slovak spelling of Michutka was “Mičutka,” and that the little mark over the letter c made it sound like the English ch sound.  That apparently was the way George Michutka’s family spelled the name before they left Europe, and that’s the way it is spelled today by our Slovak relatives.

(A brief aside: Slovak also has a ch letter combination, which expresses a totally different sound than the English ch. If you spell our name the English way in Slovakia, people will pronounce the name sort of like “Mee-hoot-kaa”!)

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t other spellings of our name in the Slovak parish records! Nor does it mean that George and family came to the U.S. and immediately and consistently spelled the name “Michutka.”

If we look at George’s baptismal record again, we see the name spelled “Micsutka”[1]:

"Georgius Micsutka" birth & baptismal record, Makov, Slovakia, 29 April 1891
 And if we look at another family record, this one the 1834 death record of ancestress Eva Kaličak wife of Martin Mičutka, we see both her maiden name and her married surname spelled with ts to represent the English ch / Slovak č sound, “Kalitsjak” and “Mitsutka”[2]:

Eva Kalitsjak wife of Martin Mitsutka, died 5 June [1834], age 57, resident of Makov
As near as I’ve been able to tell, the ts spelling (Mitsutka) tended to be the Latin spelling of the name; cs (Micsutka) was (and still is) the Hungarian representation of the English ch sound. But… the Hungarian spelling shows up not only when the records were kept in Hungarian, but sometimes also when the records were kept in Latin.

I don’t recall seeing any other variations in the spelling of our family name in the parish records of Makov.

BUT just to make things more interesting: about 8 or 9 miles south of Makov (as the crow flies) is the town Štiavnik. The name Mišutka[3] (modern Slovak spelling) occurs there, spelled Missutka in the old parish registers.[4]  Phonetically, the sh and ch (English spelling) sounds are very close, articulated in the same spot in the mouth.  When I found this, I wondered if š and č historically ever overlapped (that is, substitute for each other) in Slovak, and whether Mišutka and Mičutka might therefore be variants of the same name. I consulted Professor Martin Votruba of the Slovak Studies Program at the University of Pittsburgh. The answer was, linguistically, no, the sounds don’t overlap in Slovak. But he pointed out that an alternate explanation might be a person moving to another village and his name being recorded slightly differently (heard wrong, remembered wrong by the recorder, etc), and becoming set in that form.[5] So far, I have found no apparent links in the parish records between the Štiavnik Mišutkas and the Makov Mičutkas, so if this possibility has some historical basis, the split in the name evidently occurred before the time of any extant records. So perhaps the two names reflect one original family a few hundred years ago, or perhaps the names arose independently and the similarity is mere coincidence.

And what does Mičutka mean? This is a question that regularly pops up in our family, and is one that I myself have asked of Slovaks and experts in the Slovak language. And the answer, that all-too-frequent answer, is always “I don’t know.” The only thing that can be said about the name is that the –ka ending is an old masculine diminutive suffix or other derivational ending.[6]  My own personal semi-educated guess is that the name originally had meaning, but either the meaning has been lost, or the word underwent some change (came from another language, had a mispronunciation that became fixed, etc.) such that its original form and meaning can no longer be reliably determined. Today, to me, Mičutka and Michutka mean simply “all those people to whom I am related on my dad’s side of the family.”

Next Monday: What’s in a name, part 2

[1] Sv. Peter a Pavol [Saints Peter and Paul] Roman Catholic Church (Makov, Slovakia), parish registers, inventory no. 610, volume II, 1836-1908, Georgius Micsutka baptism (1891, entry #43); FHL microfilm 2,003291, item 3.
[2]  Sv. Peter a Pavol [Saints Peter and Paul] Roman Catholic Church (Makov, Slovakia), parish registers, inventory no. 609, volume I, 1796-1868, Eva Kalitsjak Mitsutka death (1834, entry 5 June); FHL microfilm 2,003291, item 2.  In spite of the dates given on the cover of this volume of the register and on the microfilm title page, the death records in this volume go only to 1847, and are continued in the next volume and on the next reel of microfilm.
[3] Slovak š is equivalent in sound to English sh.
[4] I haven’t searched these records as thoroughly as the Makov records, to see if there are different Hungarian vs Latin spellings.
[5] Martin Votruba, University of Pittsburgh, to Julie Michutka, e-mail, 24 September 2008, “Spelling representations.”
[6] Martin Votruba, University of Pittsburgh, to Julie Michutka, e-mail, 27 December 2008, “Name Variations.”
For a discussion of Slovak diminutives and what they do (and do not) mean, see the right sidebar at

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating. I'm particularly interested in similar names in nearby locations, though simply settling on what a name "is" would be refreshing in my research.