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The Name Police


Historically, the French have been very strict about naming. It is permitted to change a name legally, but very difficult, and only with a very good reason. Even when one does, every single official document about one gives one's name as "Monsieur X, who changed his name from Y...."  One might as well not have bothered.

Forty per cent of all French surnames are religious, falling into general groupings, as determined by the authors of the Grand Dictionnaire des Noms de Famille (éditions Ambre, 2002)

  • Biblical names, such as Adam, Daniel, Gabriel, Levy, or Salomon
  • The evangelists' or apostles' names or Mary and Joseph, such as Jacques, Andrieu, Pierre, Marie, Joseph, Lucas, Marc
  • Names of saints that may have Germanic, Greek, of Latin origins, such as Arnaud, Lambert, Nicolas, Vidal, or Clément 
  • Names of religious occupations, such as Clerc or Moine
  • Names of religious festivals, such as Noël or Toussaint 
  • Names of pilgrimages, such as Pelerin 
  • Names of religious places such as Chapelle 
  • There are also surnames of a religious nature given to nameless foundlings such as Dieudonné, meaning God-given.  
If surnames have been influenced by religion,  first names have been even more so, and that religious influence was used by the government for its own purposes. Humorous stories abound of parish priests who imposed the name of a favourite saint upon every child, with generations of children having the name Martin or Martine. No priest would baptize a child who did not have a Christian name. 
Some names were not permitted at all. The civil government extended the custom of the priests' limiting of names in order to prevent any child having a name from the suppressed language of lower Brittany. Breton names such as Aezhur or Tangi were not accepted by either priest for baptism or clerk for acte de naissance. The parents had to choose another name.
Today, Breton is still not recognized as a language by the French government (update on that) and, though such Breton names as Yannick and Annick are heard, the name police are still in force. A few years ago a friend of ours tried to register the birth of his daughter Pénélope.  The clerk at the Mairie refused to accept the name because it is not in the Bible. Our friend was stunned but possesses a formidable amount of French dudgeon and won the day; so Pénélope she is. 

©2009 Anne Morddel 
French Genealogy