The Magic Box at the Archives départementales de Paris
All You Need Do Is Ask

A Couple of Books on French Surnames

Nom de famille cover

We have received in our mailbox this week the suggestion that we read the article on the Learning Center by Juliana Smith entitled "Searching for Common Surnames". We thought it contained rather good  advice and suggestions and had the idea to see what comparable advice may exist on French surnames. We have touched on the subject, albeit obliquely, in our posts on and on surnames that come from métiers. Now, we review two books on French surnames that have been out for a while. 

"Les noms de famille et leurs secrets" by Jean-Louis Beaucarnot, was published in 1988, a hefty number of years ago in this age of internet genealogy. Yet, since what it discusses is historical and goes back many centuries, its value remains constant. Beaucarnot is a well-respected genealogist and has published a couple of dozen books on genealogy, all in French. The book begins with the grievously erroneous impression on the part of the author that Dale Carnegie was a psychologist but then races on authoritatatively on the subject of the history and categories of origin of French surnames. As to the latter, he gives the following:

  • Names that have Germanic origins (recall that Charlemagne was a Frank who spoke no French)
  • Names from the Bible
  • Names that are corruptions and derivations of Biblical names
  • Names that are combinations of forenames
  • Names that indicate a family relationship
  • Names that indicate a person's work
  • Names that indicate a person's appearance or character
  • Names that come from nature
  • Names that are anecdotal
  • Names that indicate a person's geographical origins
  • Names that stem from a local dialect

Each category is described and one or two examples given. A few paragraphs of lists follow, with little discussion of each name. The thrill of naming, of finding the right and most euphonious word for a creature's or person's identity, that Adam may have had seems not to have been held by M. Beaucarnot, for whom the subject seems a great bore. While he gives a bit of information about a few names, this is by no means a complete dictionary of names, nor is it a full history of French naming. Aimed at the amateur, it falls betwixt and between the two and is neither useful nor entertaining.

However, a few pages before the end, things pick up, with a spiffy little section on practical method. There is a list of the one hundred most common surnames in France, with Martin at the top. Then, there are a number of truly handy hints helping one to recognize the geographical origin of a name. For those with no idea of where in France their ancestors may have originated -- and whose ancestors did not bear the surname Martin -- this section can be of some use.

Marie-Odile Mergnac has also written a string of genealogy books, among them the fine "Ma Généalogie de siècle en siècle". Her book on the subject of surnames  -- "Trouver l'origine de son nom de famille" -- is much shorter, more recent, more to the point, lifts about eighty per cent of its content from Beaucarnot, and is essentially a bibliography of recommended books. She, too gives the history of naming and the same categories for name origins. She, too, gives a list of the one hundred most common  French surnames, still with Martin at the top. She adds a bit of discussion of changes wrought by the Revolution and the abolition of slavery, but her value is not in the discussion at all; for that Beaucarnot is much better. Mergnac's book is useful for its lists of other books on names of various regions.

Dense subject, surnames, so you may want to get both, and many more besides. 

©2012 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy