Nest: a rare and perplexing surname

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By chance, I came across the surname "Gnaizda".  Its phonological configuration puzzled me for a while, but then I began to formulate hypotheses about its origin.  I briefly thought that it might have been Semitic and considered the possibility that it was cognate with "genesis".  It was easy to rule out "genesis", though, because that goes back to the PIE root *gene- ("give birth, beget").

Rather than making stabs in the dark about what language Gnaizda might derive from, I thought it would be more sensible to search for individuals with that surname and see whether there were any pertinent biographical, genealogical, or onomastic information available about them.

The most prominent Gnaizda I found was the civil justice advocate, Robert Gnaizda (1936-2020), who was the General Counsel and Policy Director for the Greenlining Institute based in Berkeley, California.  There are many references to him on the internet.  Unfortunately, the Wikipedia article on Robert Gnaizda does not provide any etymological information about his surname.

Here's what l could glean from various sources.  Robert Gnaizda, the civil rights attorney, passed away in 2020 at age 83. His grandfather was a Russian Jew (from what's now Ukraine) who came through Ellis Island sometime between 1900 and 1910. At the time he didn't speak English, probably only Russian and Yiddish. Upon settling in Brooklyn, the family surname was Gnaizda, but I have not been able to find a record of that surname in Russia or in the Ellis Island records from that decade. I have no idea how the family ended up with that name.  There was nothing else for me to do but forge ahead as best as I could on my own.

I was familiar with the Hebrew word "genizah", since Penn houses many volumes of the famous Cairo Genizah, which was discovered in 1896.  Moreover, two scholars associated with Penn were awarded MacArthur Fellowships to work on the Cairo Genzah manuscripts, Shelomo D. Goitein in 1983 and Marina Rustow in 2015.

I suspected that "genizah" was an expansion from a hypothetical Semitic triconsontal root g-n-z, and it turns out I was right:

From Hebrew גְּנִיזָה (g'nizá, archiving, preservation, storage; hiding; genizah) (plural גְּנִיזוֹת (g'nizót)), from Old Persian *ganzam, from Old Median *ganǰam (depository; treasure).


The word genizah comes from the Hebrew triconsonantal root g-n-z, which means "to hide" or "to put away", from Old Median *ganza- (“depository; treasure”). The derived noun meant 'hiding' and later a place where one put things, and is perhaps best translated as "archive" or "repository".


Though it was fun researching the etymology of "genizah", I decided not to pursue it as the source of Gnaizda because, among other reasons, I couldn't determine how, within Hebrew, it acquired suffix -da nor how initial consonant cluster gn- arose within Hebrew.

Martin Schwartz called my attention to Russian "gnezdo гнездо" and Polish "gniazdo", both of which mean "nest".

Here's the etymology of the Russian word:

From Old East Slavic гнѣздо (gnězdo), from Proto-Slavic *gnězdo, from Proto-Balto-Slavic *nisdá, from Proto-Indo-European *nisdós.


Here's the reconstruction of the Proto-Indo-European root *nisdós:

From the adverb *h₁ni (down), from *h₁én (in), + the root *sed- (sit) + *-ós. Literally "where [the bird] sits down".


Cf. English "nest":

From Middle English nest, nist, nyst, from Old English nest, from Proto-West Germanic *nest, from Proto-Germanic *nestą, from Proto-Indo-European *nisdós (nest), literally "where [the bird] sits down", a compound of *ni (down) (whence also English nether) + the zero-grade of the root *sed- (to sit) (whence also English sit).


Martin further suggested that "Gnaizdo" probably comes from a toponym and cited "Swallow's Nest" in Crimea (Ukrainian: Ластівчи́не гніздо́, romanizedLastivchýne hnizdó; Russian: Ласточки́но гнездо́, romanizedLastochkíno gnezdó)

So where did that initial "g" of "gnaizda" come from?  I surmise that somehow it was picked up from Germanic, which does have words beginning with "gn-" (e.g., "gnat", "gnit", "gnaw", "gnash"); cf. "kn-" words, which are plenteous in Germanic.

It's interesting that it was the initial "gn-" cluster that strongly attracted my attention in the first place.  It looked Germanic, but it didn't seem to fit with the rest of the word.


Selected readings

[Thanks to Peter Golden and Mehmet Olmez]


  1. Kent McKeever said,

    April 15, 2024 @ 7:52 am

    Ever since I was a child, and knew a local school staffer of Polish ancestry named "O'Kunewicz," I have assumed some unusual names were the result of an immigration officer of a particular background dealing with an unfamiliar language among the immigrants. Without any real evidence, I assumed O'Kunewicz had an Irish immigration officer There were certainly other members of the local Polish community who had names beginning with an "O" who were spared the apostrophe.

  2. david said,

    April 15, 2024 @ 8:19 am

    My great grandfather immigrated at Ellis Island in 1891 with his family and a Russian passport. He officially created my surname, which is unique within DuckDuckGo searches, for his petition for naturalization.

  3. Cervantes said,

    April 15, 2024 @ 11:11 am

    Is this a possibility? Etymology of gneiss:

    mid 18th century: from German, from Old High German gneisto ‘spark’ (because of the rock's sheen).

    The English surname "sparks" is thought to have been a nickname given to a blacksmith.

  4. Rodger C said,

    April 15, 2024 @ 11:55 am

    @Kent McKeever: I've also seen "O'Bradovich."

  5. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 15, 2024 @ 12:39 pm

    While I too associate the gn- cluster with Germanic languages, some of the data you post indicates that it was also found in early East Slavic and is still found in Russian, with Ukrainian like English having preserved a spelling convention that no longer reflects current pronunciation. Unless you meant to suggest that Proto-Slavic picked it up millennia ago as an areal influence from Proto-Germanic?

  6. Y said,

    April 15, 2024 @ 12:40 pm

    Gnaizda looks like a one-time English phonetic spelling of гнездо.

  7. CuConnacht said,

    April 15, 2024 @ 1:03 pm

    Despite thousands of instances of family lore to the contrary, immigration officers did not change immigrants' names.

  8. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    April 15, 2024 @ 1:41 pm

    @ Y: Gnaizda looks like a one-time English phonetic spelling of гнездо.

    Does it though? The "ai" in the middle is the wrong way around. In all those Slavic words, the /n/ is palatalized because the following segment is /j/. So, if the Slavic etymology is right, then it would have had to come from a language that has lost that palatalization. Which one? Not Polish, not Russian, not Czech. Serbian looks like a candidate, but then what about the "a" at the end.

  9. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    April 15, 2024 @ 1:47 pm

    Actually, come to think of it, the "a" also disqualifies it as an English phonetic spelling of East Slavic, since the "o" at the end is stressed in Russian and Ukrainian, thus [o]. (I had to check on Google Translate since East Slavic lexical stress is a mystery to me; and there's no audio for Belarusian, so that's all that's left.)

  10. Bybo said,

    April 15, 2024 @ 1:51 pm

    Quite obviously an erroneous concatenation of 'G.' (initial or middle initial) and 'Naizda', Lojban for 'home of the nation', possibly referring to Lojbanistan.

  11. Brett said,

    April 15, 2024 @ 5:34 pm

    @Rodger C.: I've never encountered a real O'Bradovich, but a minor character in the Xenozoic Tales comic book series was named "Mess O'Bradovich." He would not have been significant in the lore of the series, except that he was made the fourth playable character in the 1993 Capcom beat-em-up Cadillacs and Dinosaurs, where he appeared as a cauliflower-eared maniac who body-slammed dinosaur poachers.

  12. Alex Shpilkin said,

    April 15, 2024 @ 7:13 pm

    Yes, the ⟨ai⟩ is weird. Scribe’s misspelling of what was intended to be ⟨ia⟩ (as in standard Polish writing, or perhaps to transcribe a Southern Russian unstressed [æ] or some such)? Someone’s creative French-style transcription of [e]?.. There needs to be an explanation for this etymology to work.

  13. David Marjanović said,

    April 16, 2024 @ 12:03 pm

    An etymological nativization from Polish or Belorussian into Lithuanian or Latvian…? *ě is the regular Slavic outcome of earlier *ai which is generally preserved in Baltic.

    Actually, *ě has no business developing from a plain *i, which is moreover short. And the *g has no business just dropping from the heavens. These problems are mentioned in the Wiktionary article and given rather tortuous explanations from analogy…

  14. Mark L. Levinson said,

    April 16, 2024 @ 12:22 pm

    About the O prefix… I had a great-uncle in Boston by the name of Julius Osniel Cohen, or Julius O. Cohen. On some of his incoming mail (snail mail in those days) his name was morphed into Julius O'Cohen.

  15. Lars said,

    April 16, 2024 @ 2:18 pm

    The syllable structure reminded me of Latvian zvaigzne and its various Slavic cognates. But гнездо looks good too.

  16. Lars said,

    April 16, 2024 @ 2:19 pm

    Oops, forgot the translation. Zvaigzne means star.

  17. Jim said,

    April 16, 2024 @ 3:21 pm

    "from Old Median *ganza- (“depository; treasure”)"

    Would that then connect to "ganja" (your "stash")?

  18. Killer said,

    April 16, 2024 @ 7:08 pm

    What about asking somebody named Gnaizda?

  19. Martin Schwartz said,

    April 18, 2024 @ 1:01 am

    The "original" Mr Gnaizda,who seems to have been from what was
    Greater Russia, probably spoke Yiddish and (some) Russian, and brought to Ellis Island documents in Cyrillic (Russian) characters.
    An immigration clerk may have heard gnazdó as what he heard as Gneyzdoa nd transcribed it as Gnaizo (a Hasidic woman I know,'
    Yiddish name Eydl (Gentle, refined, noble) spells her name in English as Aidel, for example). A second clerk may have copied the -o as -a.
    I find CuConnachts sweepin generalization dubious, but I can't access
    the linked article. Anyway, no "change" is involved here.
    @ JIm:Perhaps Hindustani etc. ganja for hashish or marijuana is from
    Persian ganj 'treasure', but I haven't checked..
    Martin Schwartz

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