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Understanding surnames and given names can help you find and identify your ancestors in the records.
Before the 1200s most people had only one name, such as John [Jean]. As the population increased, it became necessary to distinguish between individuals with the same name. The problem was usually solved by adding descriptive information. John became John the stout [Jean Le Gros] or John from the town of Dieulouard [Jean Dieulouard]. At first, "surnames" applied only to one person and not to the whole family. After a few generations, these names became hereditary and were used from father to son.
Surnames were developed from several major sources:
- Names of saints or persons from the Bible, such as David or Martin.
- Occupational names based on the person's trade, such as merchant [Marchand].
- Descriptive nicknames, such as Little John [Petitjean].
- Geographical names based on a person's residence such as forest [Dubois] or "from Burgundy province" [de Bourgogne].
Surnames were first used by the nobility and wealthy land owners. Later the custom was followed by merchants and townspeople and eventually by the rural population. This process took two or three centuries. In France, the practice was well established by the 1200s.
Since 1539 the law that required priests to write baptism registers also required them to write the surname next to the baptismal name. In the 1700s researchers often find a name written various ways in the same document. But by 1808, especially in civil registration, the spelling of surnames became fixed.
Jewish Naming Customs. Before 1808, the use of a family name by Jews was left to the discretion of the individual. Most Jews in France followed the custom of using only a given name and the father's name, such as Isaac, son of Abraham. Occasionally the name of the town where the person lived was used, as in Isaac of Metz.
Most Jews did not adopt hereditary family names until required to do so by law. In 1808 Napoléon made Jews take a fixed surname. They were required to register their surnames and some of these surname registers still exist. They are usually at the departmental archives.
Double surnames. In some areas of France, especially in the mountainous regions of the Alps and the Pyrénées, individuals may have taken a second (double) surname. The first part of the surname is usually the family surname. The second part of the surname may be a place, a house name, or a nickname. Examples of double surnames are:
Alias names. A few people, most often soldiers or sailors, took a second surname preceded by "so-called" [dit]. Sometimes the individual adopted the dit name as the family name, and dropped the original surname. For example, the surname HURNON dit LAJOIE may be listed in these ways:
- HURNON dit LAJOIE
Nobility names. Noble families often have several surnames, including one referring to the fief; for example, Chandon de Briailles, de Bourbon de Vendôme, or Dubois d'Ernemont.
Official Name Changes. Starting in 1474 anyone who wished to change his name was required to get permission from the King. Official name changes are indexed in:
Jérôme, archiviste. Dictionnaire des changements de noms de 1803 à 1956 (Dictionary of changed names from 1803 to 1956). Paris, France: Librairie Française, 1974. (FHL book 944 D4j 1974; not on microfilm.)
French Names in Other Languages
French genealogical records may be in various languages: French, German, Latin, or Italian. Your ancestor's name could be in Latin in his birth record, in French in his marriage record, and in German on his death record. Given names are often very different when translated into different languages; for example:
- Latin French German
- Deodata Dieudonné Theodor
- Stephanus Etienne Stephan
- Guilhelmus Guillaume Wilhelm
- Jacobus Jacques Jacob
Given names are translated into 23 different European languages, including English, in this book—
Janowowa, Wanda, et al. Sownik Imion (Dictionary of Names). Wroclaw, Germany: Ossoliski, 1975. (FHL book 940 D4si; film 1,181,578 item 2; fiche 6000839.)
Children were usually given two, three, four, or more given names. Some of these may be the names of parents or other relatives. Baptism names may be different from the names given in civil registration. They may not have been used later in the child's life.
Many given names have variants and dialectical forms. Dominique may also be found as Demange. Isabelle may be called Babet. An example of a book about name meanings, variants, and places of origin is:
Morlet, Marie-Thérèse. Dictionnaire étymologique des noms de famille (Etymological dictionary of surnames). Paris, France: Perrin, 1991. (FHL book 944 D46m; not on microfilm.)
See the "Archives and Libraries" section for information about Géopatronyme, a computerized file showing the frequency of surnames in each department of France.
Other books and microfilms about French names can be found in the Family History Library Catalog, Place search, under:
- FRANCE - NAMES, PERSONAL