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4 types of French surnames: Which one is yours?

Surname Meanings
13 September 2016
by Leslie Lang


Is your last name French? Did you ever wonder where it came from and how your family got it?

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The most common French surnames for people born between 1891 and 1990 were:

  1. Martin (patronymic; after the most popular French saint, Saint Martin of Tours)
  2. Bernard (patronymic; from the given name, which is of Germanic origin)
  3. Thomas (patronymic; from the medieval given name of Biblical origin, meaning twin)
  4. Petit (a descriptive name; from the French adjective for “small” or “little”)
  5. Robert (patronymic; from the Germanic given name meaning “renown,” “bright,” “famous”)
  6. Richard (patronymic; from the Germanic given name meaning “powerful,” “strong”)
  7. Durand (a descriptive name; “steadfast;” from the Old French durant, “to endure,” “last”; or someone from a place called Durand in former Szepes County in Hungary)
  8. Dubois (A geographic name for someone living in a wood, from du + bois or “from the” + “wood”; in English, often translated as the name Wood)
  9. Moreau (a descriptive type of name meaning “dark-skinned;” literally, “son of the Moor”)
  10. Laurent (a geographic name; from the Roman surname Laurentius, which meant “from Laurentum,” which was an ancient Roman city)

In France, surnames were first used in about the 11th century to distinguish between people with the same given name, though it was centuries before their use was common.

So how did your ancestors get their French surnames? Most can be traced back to one of four types:

1. Patronymic/Matronymic

This is the most common type of French last name, and it’s simply based on a parent’s given name. Patronymic surnames were based on the father’s name and matronymic ones on the mother’s. It was common for people to distinguish between two people with the same first name by referencing their parents (usually the father). In general, the mother’s name was used only if the father was unknown.

This type of name was formed in a few different ways. French prefixes that mean “son of”—which attach, of course, to the start of a name—include de and fitz (from the Norman). To use the list of common French surnames above as an example, someone named Pierre whose father’s name was Robert might become known as Pierre de Robert or FitzRobert. Or a suffix may have been added to the parent’s name, such as -eau, -elin, -elot, -elle, or -elet, all of which indicated “little son of.”

Most patronymic names, though, did not take prefixes or suffixes. Robert’s son Pierre might just be known as Pierre Robert.

For many generations, these “surnames” did not pass down; each generation took their father’s given name as their surname until, eventually, governments decreed that a surname would be hereditary. That is when, for the most part, the same surname started passing down through each generation.

2. Occupational Surnames

It was also very common to distinguish individuals by referring to their jobs or trades. Some French occupational surnames include:

  • Berger — shepherd
  • Bisset — weaver
  • Boucher — butcher
  • Brodeur — embroiderer
  • Caron — cartwright
  • Charpentier — carpenter
  • Chevrolet — goat farmer
  • Couture — tailor
  • Fabron — blacksmith
  • Faucheux — mower
  • Fournier — baker
  • Gagne — farmer
  • Granger — farm bailiff
  • Lefebvre — craftsman (usually a blacksmith)
  • Marchand — merchant
  • Mercier — trader
  • Mullins — miller
  • Paquet — gatherer or seller of firewood
  • Page — servant or page
  • Pelletier — fur trader
  • Segal — grower or seller of rye

3. Descriptive Surnames

A descriptive surname is based on a quality that describes a person and sometimes developed from a nickname.

  • Petit — small
  • Legrand — the big one
  • Leblanc — the blonde one
  • Brun — someone with brown hair or a brown complexion
  • Donadieu or Donnadieu (“given to God”) may have been the name of a child given to a priest or monastery or because they were orphaned

4. Geographical Surnames

Geographical surnames described where a person lived or hailed from, such as:

  • Beaulieu — beautiful place
  • Beaumont — beautiful hill
  • Chastain — near certain chestnut trees
  • Comtois — from Franche-Comte, a province in eastern France
  • Deschamps — from the fields
  • Dupont — by the bridge
  • Desmarais — by the marsh
  • Dupuis — by the well
  • Linville — from Linivilla, now Ninville, France
  • Marseille — many people have the name of this major French city as their surname
  • Paris — from Paris
  • St. Martin — from St. Martin
  • Travers — near a bridge or ford

You can search for your family’s French name, its origin and meaning, French guillotine records, and much more at Ancestry.

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