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The Big Three

Bērziņš, Kalniņš, Ozoliņš – these are what I call the “big three”. They are the most common Latvian surnames. With these names more than any others it is imperative that you know where your ancestor was from.

But what do these names mean?

All three are in a diminutive form, but for surnames, this can also mean that they are singular forms referring to an area – plurals Bērziņi, Kalniņi, Ozoliņi – and therefore referring to people who live in a certain place.

How then are these names popular in almost every region of Latvia? They are topographical in nature – “bērzs” means “birch tree”, “kalns” means “hill” and “ozols” means “oak tree”. Therefore Bērziņš would mean “one who lives among the birch trees”, Kalniņš would mean “one who lives among the hills” and Ozoliņš would mean “one who lives among the oak trees”.

Similar surnames also exist in non-diminutive forms – Bērzs, Kalns and Ozols – but only Ozols has the same popularity as its diminutive form.

The Latvian Institute supplies a list of the most common Latvian names (first names and surnames) in 2005. While popular first names change over time, my experiences with late 19th century and early 20th century surnames tells me that the surname list is also probably accurate in a general historical context as well.

The surnames, and their English meanings:

  1. Bērziņš (one who lives among the birch trees)
  2. Kalniņš (one who lives among the hills)
  3. Ozoliņš (one who lives among the oak trees)
  4. Jansons (Germanic borrowing – “son of John”)
  5. Ozols (oak tree)
  6. Liepiņš (one who lives among the linden trees)
  7. Krūmiņš (one who lives among the bushes)
  8. Balodis (pigeon/dove)
  9. Eglītis (one who lives among the fir trees)
  10. Zariņš (one who lives among the branches)
  11. Pētersons (Germanic borrowing – “son of Peter”)
  12. Vītols (willow)
  13. Kļaviņš (one who lives among the maple trees)
  14. Kārkliņš (diminutive of osier/sallow, a type of bird)
  15. Vanags (hawk)

My own surname, Celmiņš – or Celmiņa, the feminine form – while not being in the top 15 is not an uncommon name, and fits this same pattern, and would translate as “one who lives among the tree stumps”.

Do you have a surname that ends in -iņš (often anglicized “ins”, “in” or “insh”)? Do you know what it means?

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