Fishy Business: A brief look at some masculine, aquatic-themed names from 14th to 17th century Estonia

by ffride wlffsdotter (Rebecca Lucas)

© 2015; all rights reserved
Last updated 27th December 2019
This article first appeared in the May 2015 issue of the magazine Cockatrice under another pen-name. The layout has been modified slightly for the web, and the contents has been lightly edited for clarity.

Personal Names and Bynames: Building Blocks for Name Construction.

When discussing names, it is helpful to have some terminology defined.
A “personal name” or “given name” is the name someone is given, usually around its time of birth (or at a naming ceremony), by their parents. To give English-language examples, common personal names are Peter, John, Michael, Judith, Anna or Mary. Although often called a “first name,” this can be misleading in historic Estonian names, as the personal name can either be at the beginning of the name, or at the end. For example, two different people were named Andres in Lihul, had their personal names at the beginning or end of the name phrase:

A “byname” is a non-hereditary name given to an individual in order to describe him in some way. If you are in a village where multiple people are called Peter, for example, you will need a way to tell them apart if you are a clerk keeping track of property, transactions or debts. The use of bynames is one way of doing so. Bynames can be divided into four broad categories (Gwynek and Benicoeur, 1999): The names discussed in this article, cover all four categories to varying degrees.

Estonia before 1600 – Terra Mariana

While today the Republic of Estonia (and neighbouring Latvia), on the eastern Baltic Sea, is an independent country, this is a relatively recent development. From the end of the 12th century, the territories encompassing modern-day Latvia and Estonia were of great interest to nearby Danes and Germans, who moved into the area for trade. This culminated in 13th century with a campaign to Christianise the various tribes in the area, called the Livonian Crusades. To make sure they stayed Christian, Terra Mariana (also known as Old Livonia) was established, eventually becoming a principality of the Holy See of Rome. It was then further divided into six feudal principalities between various groups of Danes and Germans, including the Livonian Brothers of the Sword who later merged with the Teutonic knights. Until the 14th century, northern Estonia belonged to Denmark, before it came under the purview of the Livonian branch of the Teutonic knights. Along the coastlines and islands of Estonia, Swedish settlers arrived from the 14th century onwards, and in 1561 northern Estonia came under Swedish rule. On the largest island of Estonia, Saaremaa, the Teutonic knights, sold the island to Denmark in 1559 (, n.d.).

What does this mean for naming practices? In short, the first known book in the Estonian language was not published until 1525, and the sources names are recorded in, are taken from German, Danish, Swedish, Polish or Latin-language contexts. It’s difficult to know how knowledgeable the scribes recording these names were with the Estonian language, although it seems some individuals maintaining records would sometimes translate the patronymic elements into their own language.

Roos (1976) gives the following examples, based around the byname “kett” or “chain”:

And from “att”, “ati” or “father, grandfather”: As seen above, recorded forms could include -ßon (Modern Swedish -son), filius (Latin) and –poyk or -poyke (Standard Estonian -poeg). They all have the same meaning in English of “son”, combined with Estonian-language descriptive bynames. This also explains the rather wide variety of spellings, as each scribe was influenced by their own native language, their ability to record the sounds they were hearing clearly, and their own spelling idiosyncrasies.

Son of a Literal Fish: Finnic Bynames

The most interesting byname which appears in written records, to me, are the patronymics. A patronymic is the name element which indicates an individual’s father, typically the father’s personal name. But these names weren’t recorded with an accompanying explanation of the intended meaning, which leads to some debate over how to best interpret them. Were these patronymics derived from someone’s personal name? From a nickname? Or from a place name? (And if it is from a place name, is it still considered a patronymic?)
According to Roos (1976), the medieval Estonians, or the people recording their names, were happy to derive patronymics from their father’s descriptive bynames. It is possible to find names like Simon Kurck and his son Simon Kurke poyke, with a byname meaning 'crane' or 'stork' (Standard Estonian: kurk) in 1541 Tallinn (Essen and Johansen 1939; 98).

Parallels between renaissance-era Estonian and Finnish naming patterns point towards these being descriptive bynames – the Finns are also recorded as having descriptive bynames derived from animals. The following late-16th and early-17th century examples have been interpreted from the normalised surname indexes from Alasen (2004, 2008ab). Note that the byname elements of interest are in bold:

But there doesn’t appear to be the same fervour for –poika (Finnish cognate to Estonian –poeg) type patronymics based on a father's byname. Nor is it always clear if the bynames are personal names, locative bynames, or nicknames. For example, the names Matys Kysse (Matys pope-fish) and Olaf Kyszepoyke (Olaf, son of the pope-fish) have been interpreted differently by onomastists. Kallasmaa (1996; 100) considers it more likely that they are locative bynames, so in this example they are Matys and Olaf from Kiisa, Kotsma village, Saaremaa (Estonian Land Board, 2015). Tiik (1977; 286) gives another explanation for these names, that they are marked and unmarked patronymics, derived from the diminutive of the masculine personal name Gisebert. Where Kallasmaa, Roos and Tiik disagree on etymology, this has been noted below.

Due to the wide range of sources used, abbreviations have been used. Please see the bibliography at the end of the article for further information.

Fish bynames

Standard Estonian Byname Date Fish species (Latin name) English Common Name(s) Notes Source
Ahn, moks Achnam 1573 Perca fluviatilis Redfin perch, moks are "small perch". Prepended byname ER; DRG 245
Mux 1562 No personal name ER; RuH 56
Haug, Havi, Havike Auy 1562 Esox lucius Pike No personal name recorded. ER; RuH 56
Iherus, Meriforell Jerepoikh 1523 Salmo trutta Brown trout, Sea trout Patroynmic using "poeg"/"son". DRG 23; ER
Luts Lutzenpoick 1545 Lota lota Burbot, Bubbot, Eelpout Patroynmic using "poeg"/"son". DRG 121; ER
Lutzonpoick 16th c. ER; WW 188
Merihärg Cubias Meri Herck 1638 Myoxocephalus quadricornis Fourhorn sculpin This seems to be two bynames, and no personal name. "Kubjas" (overseer) and "Merihärg". NK 63; ER
Räim Reime poicke 1572 Clupea harengus membras Baltic Herring Patroynmic using "poeg"/"son". DRG 244; ER
Säinas Seinis 1582 Leuciscus idus Ide   ER; TV 8
Särg Seryes van Röde 1374 Rutilus rutilus Roach "Särje" is the genitive case. Low German document. ER; TW 83
Silk Silke 1638 Clupea harengus Herring Note: Silk originally designated brined herring, later becoming a name for the fish itself (EK 228). Prepended byname. ER
Tursk Tůrßk 1625 Gadus morhua Atlantic cod   DuU 482; EK 153
Vimb Wimba 1627 Vimba vimba Vimba, bream Prepended byname ER
Kiisk, Kiiss Kisse 1562 Gymnocephalus cernua Pope, Ruffe No personal name recorded. ER; RuH 57
Kieß 1592 SK interprets this as a locative byname, from Kiisa in Vilsandi village, Kihelkonna parish. Notes it may also be a diminutive patronymic from the name Gisebert. ER considers "kisse" to be from "kiis". ER; LT 286; SK 100
Kieße 1630 ER; LT 286; SK 100
Kissa 1592 SK 100
Kißa 1627 LT 286; SK 100
Kiße 1627 LT 286; SK 100
Kys 1453 SK 100
Kysse 1547 SK 100
Kyszepoyke 1518 DRG 14; ER; SK 100
Kyszi 1528 SK 100
Kiszka 1590 Polish-language document. Prepended byname. ER; PI 195-6

Fish-related place names

Modern placename Placename Date Notes Source
Kalametsa heinamaa Kalama 1609 "Fish-forest meadow".
Prepended byname.
HK 66
Kalana küla Fiskiare ortz torp, 1564 1564 "Fisherman village" HK 67
Vischorde 1531 HK 67
Fischerort 1565 HK 67
Fischerortt 1635 HK 67

Bynames involving fishing and water

Modern byname Byname Date Notes Source
Kalamees Kallemesß 1542 "Fisherman" HF 590
Vesisilm Wesesylm 1554 "Water-eye" DRG 170; ER
Vesisuu Fessesu 1488 "Water-mouth" ER; WR 20

Raw Data

Name Date Source
Achnam Jurg 1573 ER; DRG 245
Auy (no personal name recorded) 1562 ER; RuH 56
Cubias Meri Herck (no personal name recorded) 1638 NK 63; ER
Hans Fessesu 1488 ER; WR 20
Hans Jerepoikh 1523 DRG 23; ER
Hanß Kallemesß 1542 HF 590
Hansz Kyszi 1528 SK 100
Henrich Wesesylm 1554 DRG 170; ER
Jurri Tůrßk 1625 DuU 482; EK 153
Kalama Hirmen 1609 HK 66
Kisse (no personal name recorded) 1562 ER; RuH 57
Kieße Jürgen 1630 LT 286; SK 100
Kissa (no personal name recorded) 1592 SK 100
Kißa Hans 1627 LT 286; SK 100
Kiße Jürgen 1627 LT 286; SK 100
Kiszka Jurgi 1590 ER; PI 195-6
Matys Kysse 1547 SK 100
Merten Lutzenpoick 1545 DRG 121; ER
Mik Seinis 1582 ER; TV 8
Mux (no personal name recorded) 1562 ER; RuH 56
Olaf Kyszepoyke 1518 DRG 14; ER; SK 100
Peter Kieß 1592 LT 286; SK 100
Peter Kys 1453 SK 100
Reime poicke Jack 1572 DRG 244; ER
Seryes van Röde 1374 ER; TW 83
Silke Bix 1638 ER
Tito Lutzonpoick 16th c. ER; WW 188
Wimba Wilhelm 1627 ER