France Personal Names

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Understanding customs used in French names can help you identify your ancestors in records. Learn to recognize name variations and see clues in names.

Online Tools[edit | edit source]

Sometimes, deciphering a surname or given name in an old handwritten document is not as easy as one might suppose. This could be due to the widespread use of abbreviations or to the difficulty in reading the handwriting. Use these lists of surname and given names to assist you in interpreting the names mentioned in the documents.[1]
  • Breton names are used in the region of Brittany in northwest France.
  • Corsican names are used on the French island of Corsica by speakers of Corsican (a language related to Italian).
  • Occitan names are used in southern France.
  • Geopatronyme A omputerized surname file available in the Public Library of Information. It maps the departments of France where a particular surname is found and the frequency of that surname.
  • Słownik imion Dictionary of names, contains given names translated into 23 different European languages, including English. Names are listed alphabetically by the Polish name, as the author is Polish. An index at the back gives the Polish form of each name. Use that name to find the 23 translations in the main list.
  • Jewish Given Names

Surnames[edit | edit source]

Double surnames[edit | edit source]

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:

  • Lavit-Jeantoy
  • Dupraz-Canard
  • Raffin-Varende

Alias Names ("dit")[edit | edit source]

A few people, most often soldiers or sailors, took a second surname preceded by "dit" ("so-called"). 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
  • HURNON dit LAJOIE
  • HURNON-LAJOIE
  • LAJOIE

Nobility names[edit | edit source]

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.

Particles[edit | edit source]

  • Some French last names include the word De- ("of") or Du- (contraction for de + le = "of the"). The particle generally indicates some land or feudal origin of the name, being associated with claims to a place, but this is not always the case.
  • A popular misconception is that the particle De- included in the name always indicates membership of the nobility. That is sometimes true. Almost all nobility titles are of the form [title] [particle [name of the land]: for instance, Louis, duc d'Orléans ("Louis, duke of Orléans"), or simply Louis d'Orléans. However, many non-noble people also have particles in their names, simply because they indicate some geographic origin or property.
  • Adding a particle was one way for people of non-noble origins to pretend they were nobles. Similarly, during the French Revolution of 1789–1799, when being associated with the nobility was out of favor and even risky, some people dropped the de from their name, or omitted the mention of their feudal titles.[2]

Regional Surnames[edit | edit source]

See Basque Personal Names.

Jewish Naming Customs[edit | edit source]

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.

Surnames Historical Development[edit | edit source]

  • Before record keeping began, most people had only one name, such as John.
  • 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 smith, John the son of Matthew, John the short, or John from Ardennes.
  • At first surnames applied only to one person, not to the whole family. After a few generations, these names became hereditary and were passed on from generation to generation.
  • Surnames developed from several sources. For example:
    • Occupational (based on a person’s trade)
    • Geographical (based on a person’s residence)
    • Patronymic (based on a person’s father’s name)
    • Descriptive or nickname (such as Joy or Child)
  • The nobility and wealthy land owners were the first to begin using surnames.
  • Merchants and townspeople then adopted the custom, as did the rural population. This process took two or three centuries.

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.

Starting in 1474 anyone who wished to change his name was required to get permission from the King.

Surname Changes of Immigrants in the United States[edit | edit source]

As Immigrants moved into English-speaking countries, their surnames were impacted in a variety of ways.


  • Most of the time the surname spelling changed to accommodate the different phonetic spelling in the English language. In other words, the recorder tried to write the name the way he heard it.
  • Surnames may also have been translated outright into English, sometimes with a slight twist.
  • Within the community, such as the local parish, immigrants may continue to use the original name, while at the same time using English-language equivalents when dealing with local government, census takers, and other English speakers.
  • Different branches of the same family may adopt various surname spellings.
  • Prior to 1900, formal surname changes documented in local court records are relatively rare.
  • During the early 20th Century, especially the World War I era, surname changes are recorded more frequently, as immigrants or, more often, their children, tried to adopt more neutral surnames.

Given Names[edit | edit source]

  • Traditionally, most people were given names from the Roman Catholic calendar of saints. Common names of this type are Jacques (James), Jean (John), Michel (Michael), Pierre (Peter), or Jean-Baptiste (John the Baptist) for males; and Marie (Mary), Jeanne (Jane), Marguerite (Margaret), Françoise (Frances), or Élisabeth (Elizabeth) for females. [3]
  • Children were usually given two, three, four, or more given names. Some of these may be the names of parents, godparents, grandparents, or other relatives.
  • Baptism/christening names may be different from the names given in civil registration. They may not have been used later in the child's life.
  • Compound given names, such as Jean-Luc, Jean-Paul or Anne-Sophie are not uncommon. These are not considered to be two separate given names. The second part of a compound name may be a given name normally used by the opposite sex. However, the gender of the compound is determined by the first component. Thus, Marie-George Buffet has a given name considered as female because it begins with Marie.[4]
  • Many given names have variants and dialectical forms. Dominique may also be found as Demange. Isabelle may be called Babet.

Given Names in Foreign Languages[edit | edit source]

Because genealogical records were kept in various languages, you may find your ancestor's name in different languages at different times.

As regions fell under the rule of different countries, the language used in records could change. For example, your great-grandfather's name could be in Latin on his birth record, in French on his marriage record, and in German on his death record. Some given names are often very different when translated into different languages, as shown by the following table.

French Latin German Italian
Adalbert Adalbertus Albrecht Alberico, Alberigo
Anne Anna Anna Anna
Isabelle Elisabetha Elisabeth Elisabetta
François Franciscus Franz Francesco
Georges Georgius Georg Giorgio
Bogomil Bogumilus Gottlieb Boleslao
Jean Joannes Johann (Hans) Giovanni
Charles Carolus Karl Carlo
Catherine Catherina Katharine Caterina
Laurent Laurentius Lorenz Lorenzo
Louis Ludovicus Ludwig Liugi
Marguerite Margarita Margareta Margherita
Marie Maria Marie Maria
Guillaume Guilielmus Wilhelm Guglielmo

The following online source contains given names translated into 23 different European languages, including English:

  • Janowowa, Wanda, et al. Słownik imion (Dictionary of names). Wrocław, Germany: Zakład Narodowy im Ossolińskich, 1975. (FHL book Ref 940 D4si; film 1181578 item 2; fiche 6,000,839.) Names are listed alphabetically by the Polish name, as the author is Polish. An index at the back gives the Polish form of each name. Use that name to find the 23 translations in the main list.

For Further Reading[edit | edit source]

  • Morlet, Marie-Thérèse. Dictionnaire étymologique des noms de famille (Etymological dictionary of surnames). Paris, France: Perrin, 1991. (FHL book 944 D46m; not on microfilm.)At various libraries (WorldCat)
  • Jérôme, archiviste. Dictionnaire des changements de noms de 1803 à 1956 (Dictionary of changed names from 1803 to 1956). Paris, France: Librairie Française, 1974. (Family History Library book 944 D4j1974; not on microfilm.)At various libraries (WorldCat)

FamilySearch Library[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. "Old French Records", at"BYU Script Tutorial", https://script.byu.edu/Pages/the-french-documents-pages/the-french-documents(english, accessed 15 February 2021.
  2. "French names", at Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/French_name#Given_names, accessed 16 February 2021.
  3. "French names", at Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/French_name#Given_names, accessed 16 February 2021.
  4. "French names", at Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/French_name#Given_names, accessed 16 February 2021.