France is one of the oldest countries in the world, and French last names reflect this long history. Tracing your last name can help you uncover a rich and detailed family history.
The History of French Names
France may have distinguished itself as revolutionary and pioneering with its ancient legacy, but it was following the trend of the times when it came to naming conventions. The Roman Empire enforced a multiple-name system: first the given name, second the name of the family association that existed within the empire, and finally the nickname, which with time became the surname.
Julius Caesar brought this naming code with him when he conquered Gaul, which encompassed the territory of current France and surrounding countries. Over the centuries, however, this Roman naming convention died away – and by the 10th century, most people only had one name – their “given” name.
Increased population, trading, and travel rendered the single-name model impractical and obsolete. Striking up a deal with five people named “Jean” – with no way of differentiating them – didn’t bode well for business. In the 11th century, people started changing their names by adding a last name to differentiate between people with the same given name.
In 1474, King Louis XI banned this liberty of people being free to add any last name they wanted, forcing all name changes to be vetted by royal decree. King Francois was the next ruler to make big changes in French naming law. In 1539, he enlisted the services of the Church to record the population’s civil status, including their names – creating records that are a boon to modern-day family historians.
The Name as Witness
As is the case with nomenclature across the board, French names provide a record of demographic patterns and historical events. Like newspaper clippings, names are witnesses to the waves of colonization, invasion, migration, and more.
Old French last names can be divided into categories that reflect these different moments in history. Although from different origins, common French last names can have religious, ethnic, or linguistic roots. For example, popular French last names take after Christian saints, but you’ll find plenty of ancient Hebraic origin as well. Latin names testify to the Romans ruling Gaul, before the country later got its name, Francia, Kingdom of the Franks. Other names come from neighboring regions that were disputed and subsumed as late as the 20th century, like the Germanic ones of Alsace and Lorraine.
Popular French Last Names
From Corsican to Catalan, and Basque to Provencal, France brings together one of the most diverse name banks in the world. That being said, some of the most utilized names are not specific to locale – rather, they deal with a trade. Here are the most common French last names and their meanings.
- Bernard: from the Germanic “bern” (bear) and “hard” (brave), the name Bernhard was first recorded as early as the 9th After the Norman conquest, the English variant Beornheard turned into the Old French Bernard, which lasts to this day.
- Dubois: from the French “du” (from) and “bois” (forest), Dubois is one of those names that speaks to a person’s living environment and professional activity, which in the old days were often one and the same.
- Durand: from the Old French “durant,” meaning enduring, the name Durand is a great example of a surname that came about as a descriptive nickname. Early reports of the name situate its birthplace in southeastern France.
- Laurent: derived from the Latin given name Laurentius, based on the word for laurel, “laurus,” Laurent is synonymous to victory. The patron saint of cooks and comedians, Saint Laurent embodies victory over fear. Legend has it, he was martyred in Rome and as he burned, laughed in the face of his oppressors. Lawrence and Laurence are versions of the original French.
- Martin: from the Latin given name Martinus, a variant of Mars, Roman god of war. The name Martin gained popularity in the Middle Ages with Martin of Tours, patron saint of France. As the story goes, Saint Martin apprehended a beggar shaking from the cold and gave him his coat without a second thought.
- Moreau: referring to Moors, this last name was first a nickname that brought attention to a person’s dark complexion. Most common in the western, Atlantic-facing regions of France, Moreau remains one of the well-known French names in the world.
- Petit: meaning “small” in French, Petit is a common French last name today. As usual, the Norman Conquest is what brought the name over to England in 1066. When the invention of personal taxes, or Poll Tax, made surnames a requirement in England, the nickname Petit was promoted to last name status. Variants of the name include Pettie and the popular Petty.
- Robert: from the Germanic Hrodberht, compounding the words “hrod” (glory) and “berht” (brilliant), the name Robert is the fifth most prominent in France. The highest concentration of people bearing the name live in the French overseas department of La Réunion.
- Thomas: Thomas was first a given name. It is one of the oldest names in the French canon, dating back to the Aramaic word for “twin.” Most famously associated with Jesus’ apostle, Thomas became increasingly popular in England after the Norman Conquest.
French names have spread as far as the empires and kingdoms of France have reached – and more. Use old newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, to trace your family history from immigrants entering Ellis Island to settlers in Louisiana and beyond. Newspapers hold the key to the untold stories of our ancestors.
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