This post is part of a series about genealogy in France. You can read the complete series HERE.
Surnames can be traced back to the 11th Century, but these were not widespread, and it took several centuries for it to become commonplace.
Surnames evolve through a variety of key pointers, and this post is going to provide some basic information and examples.
- Patronymic – based on the first or given name of the father and example is Tomas Robert, Tomas is the son of Robert
- Matronymic –based on the given name or first name of the mother, especially relevant if the father is unknown.
Typical way of attaching a suffix, meaning son of is – de, des, du, lu or the Norman Fitz. Less common in France than in some European countries, although it still occurs, such as in this case, Tomas FitzRobert = Tomas, son of Robert.
Other suffix meaning “Little son” are eau, elet, elin, elle and elit
These surnames are based on a trade, job or even aligned to something used in order to deliver a trade or job – Pierre Boulanger = Peter the baker.
Here are a few examples:
- Caron – Cartwright
- Fabron – Blacksmith
- Pelletier – Fur Trader
- Boucher – Butcher
- Barbier – Barber
- Carpentier – Carpenter
- Cartier – Carter
- De la Cour – Of the Court
- De la Rue – Of the Street
- Chaterlain – Constable, Prison warden, from the Latin word Castellum (watch tower)
- Donadieu/Donnadieu – “given to God” – often given to children who became priest/nuns, or orphaned, with unknown parents.
- Gagneux – Farmer
- Lane – Wool or wool trader
- Vachon – Cowherd
- Vercher – Farmland
- Satre – Tailor (sewing of clothes)
These are based upon an individual, developed from nicknames or pet names. For example Jacques le Grand = Jack the big (or could be the senior, if his son was given the same name). Le Blanc = blond hair or complexion, Petit = small
Some of these can be ironic, so Jacques le Grand, instead of being tall or big, could have been small or short.
French Names with Germanic Origins
With so many French surnames originating from a first name, some of the most common French names have Germanic origins.
These names became part of French culture as a result of German occupations, so Germanic names do not necessarily mean German ancestors.