Coming from the medieval French word ‘surnom’ translating as “above-or-over name,” surnames or descriptive names trace their use in France back to 11th century, when it first became necessary to add a second name to distinguish between individuals with the same given name. The custom of using surnames did not become common for several centuries, however.
Most French surnames can be traced back to one of these four types:
1) Patronymic Matronymic Surnames
Based on a parent’s name, this is the most common category of French last names. Patronymic surnames are based on the father’s name and matronymic surnames on the mother’s name. The mother’s name was usually used only when the father’s name was unknown.
Patronymic and matronymic surnames in France were formed in several different ways. The typical form of attaching a prefix or suffix that means “son of” (e.g. de, des, du, lu, or the Norman fitz) to a given name was less common in France that in many European countries, but still prevalent.
Examples include Jean de Gaulle, meaning “John, son of Gaulle,” or Tomas FitzRobert, or “Tomas, son of Robert.” Suffixes meaning “little son of” (-eau, -elet, -elin, elle, elet, etc.) may have also been used.
The majority of French patronymic and matronymic surnames have no identifying prefix, however, being direct derivations of the parent’s given name, such as August Landry, for “August, son of Landri,” or Tomas Robert, for “Tomas, son of Robert.”
2) Occupational Surnames
Also very common among French surnames, are based on the person’s job or trade, such as Pierre Boulanger [baker], or “Pierre, the baker.” Several common occupations found prevalently as French surnames include Berger (shepherd), Bisset (weaver), Boucher (butcher), Caron (cartwright), Charpentier (carpenter), Fabron (blacksmith), Fournier (baker), Gagne (farmer), Lefebvre (craftsman or blacksmith), Marchand (merchant) and Pelletier (fur trader).
3) Descriptive Surnames
Based on a unique quality of the individual, descriptive French surnames often developed from nicknames or pet names, such as Jacques Legrand, for Jacques, “the big.”Other common examples include Petit (small), LeBlanc (blonde hair or fair complexion), Brun (brown hair or dark complexion) and Roux (red hair or ruddy complexion).
4) Geographical Surnames
Geographical or habitational French surnames are based on a person’s residence, often a former residence (e.g. Yvonne Marseille – Yvonne from the village of Marseille). They may also describe the individual’s specific location within a village or town, such as Michel Léglise (church), who lived next to the church. The prefixes “de,” “des,” “du,” and “le” which translate as “of” may also be found used in geographical French surnames.
Alias Surnames or Dit Names
In some areas of France, a second surname may have been adopted in order to distinguish between different branches of the same family, especially when the families remained in the same town for generations. These alias surnames can often be found preceded by the word “dit.” Sometimes an individual even adopted the as the family name, and dropped the . This practice was most common in France among soldiers and sailors.
Germanic Origins of French Names
As so many French surnames are derived from first names, it is important to know that many common French first names have , coming into fashion during German invasions into France. Therefore, having a name with Germanic origins does not necessarily mean that you have !
Official Name Changes in France
Beginning in 1474, anyone who wished to change his name was required to get permission from the King. These official name changes can be found indexed in:
L’ Archiviste Jérôme. Dictionnaire des changements de noms de 1803–1956 (Dictionary of changed names from 1803 to 1956). Paris: Librairie Francaise, 1974.