Parlez-vous français? Did your ancestors? Finding your French Last Name

If you live in the United States, Ivory Coast, Quebec, Laos, or any other of the former French colonies, you may have a French last name. Even if you’ve never been to France, your great-great-great grandfather might have walked the streets of Paris or Lyon.  But what if you’re not sure where your ancestors were from? How can you figure it out?

Well, in a previous article, we talked about some common English names. If you can’t find your name here, check out the English list. Today we’re going to look at a France and some of it’s most common names. Maybe today you discover that you are the product of this magnificent country.

Five French Facts

1) It’s a global language: Can you name all of where you are encouraged to learn Russian? There’s a handful, but not too many anymore. What about Arabic? Quite a few actually, but not as many as French. French is the second most studied language in the world, with English only beating it out for first place.

2) Out of the 50 countries in Europe, 5 of them speak English. This means that if you’re from France, Monaco, Belgium. Luxembourg, or Switzerland, this means that if you’re from any of these countries, you already have something in common with people from other countries. Common languages also tend to share common customs, or “cousin customs” (Customs that, if not the same, may be similar). Throughout the world, 29 countries speak French.

3) French films draw the third largest crowds in the world. France may just be the genesis of modern cinema. Only India and the United States spend more money on cinema entertainment

4) At the time of the French Revolution, more than 70% of French citizens didn’t actually speak French. Instead, because of education issues, they chose to use regional dialects and individual slangs. When it came time for France to be united under one flag (after the revolution), French needed to be imposed by an external force. The Académie Francaise wasn’t created at this time, but it came into its power.

The Académie Francaise: We decide what is French.

The Académie Francaise was established in the 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu. He was concerned that French was drifting away from its purest form. It was decommissioned during the French revolution, but re-instituted by Napoleon Bonaparte.

The point of the Académie was to monitor the French language and create a standardized set of verb forms, pronunciation, and grammar rules. While it has no official legal authority, it is responsible for publishing the official French dictionary. In it’s most interesting push against a changing language, it has been moving against English words being absorbed into French.

                              This is french

French Last Name

  this is not

Recently, the Académie has made headlines by stating that French is in mortal danger. While languages around the world have moved to create a neutral third person pronoun, France has chosen to put an end to those pressures in French. While it may be seen as a chauvinistic move by the Académie, it could just as easily be an attempt to ensure that French is still recognizable 100 years from now. One of the codified rules in French may have to do with last names.

What does the Académie Do Anyways?

Whether through official edict, or evolved from tradition, it looks like French last names fall into 4 distinct categories. It makes sense that a society built around art, culture, and history would have types for its names as well. No matter what language you speak, or what region your name is from, there will always be people named after places or geography.

There Once was a Man from Lyon: French last names from Cities

Before the internet, and an interconnected planet, your name said a lot about who you were or where you were from. The Name Saint- Martin may refer to a family who had something to do with the construction for the Saint-Martin Canal. This canal allowed fresh water to be taken from the Seine and diverted towards Paris. Someone would take the last name Saint Martin to speak of living near the Parisian Capital.

But maybe you’re not a Saint-Martin. Maybe your last name is more feline, Lyon perhaps? Even though it sounds like the giant cat, Lyon isn’t about cats. It’s actually the third largest city in France. If you could claim to be from this city, you were a person of importance. It wasn’t the capital of France, but it was the place were modern cinema was created. If you’re name is Lyon, someone you are related to grew up in very interesting circumstances.

But it wasn’t just about cities. Other regions had people named after them as well. If your name is Lemieux, your family came from the alps regions of France. Romilly is similar in family names. These people come from the northern regions of France. Regional names are fairly common, but not as common as trade names.

I’m more than what I do: French Last names from Trades

Every single language has last names that have to do with occupations, trades, jobs, or reputations. France is no exception. Before the industrial revolution, agriculture was a huge concern. If you weren’t a farmer, you knew people who were. If you are named Berger, it’s probable that someone in your past was a shepherd.

 If your name is Gagnier, or Gagne, you probably came from a family that were farmers. If they weren’t farmers directly, they worked on a farm.

Porcher wasn’t someone who sold porches. Instead, this name comes from the French word porc, a pig. If your last name is Porcher, your ancestors knew where to find the best bacon, because they were raising it.

One of the most famous French names comes from the automotive industry. Chevrolet wasn’t always a solid car brand. In fact, it comes from the French word Chevre, a goat farmer. While goats are important to the local economy, I’d bet real money that Chevy will not be remembered because of the goats…

Farm life wasn’t the only option for finding a last name. You also had several industrial names, and trade names to choose from.

The Clothes make the man, and the man makes…

Once the Bergers got the wool off the sheep, they sent it to the towns. Your weavers made the wool into cloth, and the tailor made the clothes. My apologies. The Bureaus took the wool and spun it into cloth, and the Coutures made it into clothes.

Maybe you need something classy, something a bit fancier for a wedding or such. Then you need to visit the Brodeurs, the experts at embroidery.

A butcher, a baker… a pizza    dough maker?

Once you’re dressed in your finest clothes, you need to go to dinner. When you arrive, you and the other guests sit down around the table and chat for a minute. After a bit, you realize there’s no food on the table. Nobody visited the Mullins (French for Miller), to get the flour. No one went to the Fournier (French for Baker) to get the bread baked. Worst of all, no one invited the Garcon (The Servant), so no one set the table. If your last name is one of these, your great-great-great grandfather had something to do with one of these places.

Family Comes First, or maybe comes last: French last names from Families

The final category of names is names that are passed down from father to son, or mother to daughter. Especially before the 19th century, the names of fathers and mothers weren’t necessarily passed down from generation to generation. The Norman influence was felt all over Europe, and France was no exception. If your name contains “Fitz” or “De”, both of which are French for son, your name is an example of the Norse influence. The same is true for “-Eau, Elot, or Elle. Each one of these suffixes can mean “little son of…” If your name contains one of these suffixes, you’re part of a proud family line with the patron well worth remembering.

Looking up names, I must be in here somewhere

TL: DR: Take care of yourself

Your name says a lot about you, even if you’re not sure what your name means. If you speak English, but have a French last name, it can be difficult to figure out what the meaning is. Hopefully, this post can point you in the right direction.  What’s you’re last name? Leave it in the comments and we’ll check it out next time

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