In the mid-11th Century AD, last names began emerging throughout Europe as a way to help differentiate between people with the same first name. French surnames often trace back to a history as rich as La France itself, with even seemingly common French last names having fascinating origins.
Due to France’s historical might and the modern-day love of its culture, French last names can be found throughout the globe. Whether you’re from New Orleans or Tangiers, you can begin the journey to unravel a piece of your own genealogy with this short guide to understanding some popular French last names origins and meanings.
Shared History with the Wider Continent
Did you know that some of the most common French last names actually have Germanic roots? The reason is due to the shared history between the two peoples; throughout the ages, there have been great movements of people back and forth due to the ever-changing nature of European borders.
To that end, common French last names like Richard and Robert are originally German! It is always important to remember that the history of Europe is a history of the movement of peoples, therefore alongside Germanic-sounding names you may even find some Norse ones (such as Leroy).
French last names were also greatly affected by Christianity, with the names of saints being featured heavily. As is true throughout the continent, the influence of the Romans is also greatly noticeable in some French last names, which carry distinct Latin origins such as the surname Auguste. Additionally, due to French wedding traditions and customs, surnames are sometimes used by newlywed spouses. These factors all have contributed to the name variations seen throughout the history of French.
Five Kinds of French Names
Most French surnames can be categorized into a list of five different groups:
- Profession based: These are some of the oldest traceable ones, and denote the trade of a past ancestor. For example, someone with the last name Berger most likely had a shepherd in their family once upon a time!
- Geographically based: These names relate to the specific French regions where a person once descended from; for example, the last name Comtois shows that the family once hailed from Franche-Comte in eastern France. These names can also relate to specific features, such as the name Beaumont (meaning beautiful mountain or hill).
- Descriptive: These names were often based on a quality of character or physical appearance; for example, Leblanc means the blonde one, or Brun meaning someone with a darker complexion. Sometimes the prefix “du” is attached meaning “of”; for example, Dubois means of the forest.
- Matronymic/Patronymic: The most common French last names are based on their mother or father’s given name. A common prefix to denote this is “de/du” and is used to say son of; however, sometimes it is left out altogether. For example, Jacques de Robert could also be written as Jacques Robert. The Normans, a once distinct people found in the north of France use the prefix “Fritz,” so Jacques FitzRobert would denote Jack son of Robert (from Normandy).
- Dit Names: These are perhaps the least common, and confined to only a few areas in the north of the country. Dit names are unofficial surnames that became accepted over many years; they are used when different branches of the family remain in a certain area for a long time to differentiate between the different groups. Many Dit names also emerged during times of military conscription, as military law required a nom de guerre.
Where Does Your Name Fit into This? Some French Last Names and Meanings
Below is a quick guide to some of the most common French last names:
- Dumont: Literally translating as “from the mountain,” the ancestors of this family were most likely from the more mountainous parts of the country.
- Durand: Derived from the Old French word meaning “enduring,” this name also has Latin roots from “duruo” which translates as “to make stronger.”
- Leroy: Brought down from the Northmen Viking conquerors, Leroy is a common Norman French last name meaning “the King.”
- Fortin: Another ancient Norman name, this means “strong.”
- Martin: An original Latin name derived from the God of War, Mars, the surname found immense popularity in France due to the connotations of strength (martial) and as a way to honor Saint Martin of Tours.
It’s clear that French last name origins are not only easy on the ears, they also give us an insight into the family’s ancestral history. If you want to uncover even more information about your ancestors, use this short guide as a springboard to dive into GeneologyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives and uncover your family history!
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