Origins of French Last Names French surnames developed from four major sources:
- Patronymic & Matronymic Surnames - Based on a parents name, this is the most common category of French last names. French language prefixes and suffixes are sometimes found attached to a given name to form a patronymic surname (Jean de Gaulle - John son of Gaulle). The majority of French patronymic and matronymic surnames have no identifying prefix, however, being direct derivations of the parent's given name (August Landry - August son of Landri).
- Occupational Surnames - Also very common among French surnames, these last names are based on the persons job or trade (Pierre Boulanger [baker] - Pierre the baker)
- Descriptive Surnames - Based on a unique quality of the individual, these surnames often developed from nicknames or pet names (Jacques Legrand - Jacques the big)
- Geographical Surnames - These surnames are based on a persons residence, usually a former residence (Yvonne Marseille - Yvonne from the village of Marseille). They may also describe the individual's specific location within a village or town (Michel Léglise [church] lives next to the church).
Suffixes & Prefixes
While not in common use as in Italy or Sweden, some French surnames are formed by the addition of various prefixes and suffixes. A variety of French suffixes including -eau, -elet, -elin, -elle, and -elot, mean "little son of" and can be found attached to a given name to form a patronym. Prefixes of French surnames also have specific origins. The prefixes "de," "des," "du," and "le" each translate as "of" and may be found used in patronymic and geographical French surnames. Some French-Norman patronymic surnames will have the prefix "fritz," from the Old French for "son of" (Fitzgerald - son of Gerald).
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 dit name as the family name, and dropped the original surname. 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 Germanic origins, coming into fashion during German invasions into France. Therefore, having a name with Germanic origins does not necessarily mean that you have German ancestors!
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.
Meanings & Origins of Common French Surnames