Surnames: origin, etymology, transmission, popularity

How many surnames are there in France?

But where does your last name come from? INSEE lists nearly 1.3 million different surnames in France, one in two people with a very rare surname and eight in ten with a rare surname. An estimate which should in fact be corrected downwards because many of these names are of foreign origin (there were fewer than 600,000 at the end of the last century), but also because this count sticks to the spelling , while many names are actually just a variant of another name. Thereby Dupond, Dupont, de Dupont or Marionnaud, Marionneau, Marioneau and Marillonneau are only variants of one and the same name originally. In fact, there should hardly be more than 350,000 really different French surnames in France.

What is the etymology of your surname?

Even Asterix didn’t have a last name. Indeed, no Gaul had a surname. Throughout the first millennium and even at the beginning of the second, our ancestors had only a baptismal name: the equivalent of our current first name. According to the website Genealogy guide,until the 11th century, people had only a baptismal name. According to the specialized site, it was not until the 12th century that “the population explosion forced people to give nicknames to individuals in order to avoid confusion”.

The surnames have several origins historically and most often come from:

  • old baptismal names : Nicholas…
  • of professions: Miller, Marshal, Baker…
  • nicknames and nicknames of all kinds linked to physical appearance (Roux, Brun, Borgne…), character traits (Lesage)
  • geographical locations : Dupont (living near a bridge), Dupré, this can also be the name of a hamlet or a locality, which is especially frequent in the regions of scattered and generalized habitat in the South quarter. West.
  • plants, trees, animals…
  • social rank

Surnames are also sometimes derived from Christian names :

When it comes to surnames derived from baptismal names, surnames can have several origins:

  • biblical nameslike Abraham
  • Judaic names, like John
  • names of Germanic originlike Gerard
  • forgotten names, such as Agapit or Bonnet
  • names proceeding by diminutive or “re-diminutive”, such as Jeannot, Simonnot or Monnot….

Surnames derived from nicknames:

Some surnames are matronyms since they are transposed to the femininelike “Mariotte, Butcher”.

Surname: on what date does the family record book appear?

In the 17th century, François 1er (ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts) imposed the registration of baptisms and surnames for Catholics. This civil status register is kept by the clergy, present throughout the kingdom. It will be necessary to wait for the French Revolution so that the name of all the citizens are registered on the registers of the civil status without distinction of confession. Birth registration is then entrusted to the state. The law of 6 Fructidor of Year II confirms the principle of the immutability of the patronymic name.

However, the spelling of these surnames may still vary and it will be necessary wait until 1870 and the appearance of family booklets bringing together, within the same document, all the information disseminated until then in several parish or civil status registers, so that things stabilize. Quite recently, a new bill, supported by Eric Dupont-Moretti, envisages the transformation of certain mechanisms relating to the change of surname.

Surnames: will it soon be easier to change them?

A new bill, supported by the Minister of Justice among others, was presented to the National Assembly by Patrick Vignal (La République en Marche), informs Le Figaro. The LREM deputy from Hérault is indeed pleading for a significant change in civil status, considering the possibility for everyone to change their surname using a simple CERFA form, filled from its town hall. It would then be up to each Frenchman to “choose his surname once in his life”, underlined Éric Dupont-Moretti.

If the Keeper of the Seals is in favor of this kind of transformation, it is because the requests for a change of surname are more numerous from year to year. Thus, 3,567 requests were communicated to the Chancellery in 2021. In 2018, the organization identified “only” 2,774.

Over the past twenty years, genealogy has experienced considerable growth, while dematerialization and access to digital resources facilitate the research process of our ancestors and allow the French to discover the origin and evolution of their own surname.

What are the most common surnames in France?

Is your surname one of the most common in France? According to the website geoptatronyme.combetween 1891 and 1990, the 10 most common surnames in France are:

Among the surnames resulting from nicknames with which the ancestors of those who now bear them had been given, we find several types of nicknames that had been given :

  • in reference to birth, such as The Elder,
  • with reference to family and kinshipas Brother,
  • in reference to society, such as Lemoine, Leduc, Prévôt…
  • in reference to the profession or know-how, such as basket weaver, weaver, chapentier…
  • with reference to physicallike Legros,
  • in reference to character or personality, such as Vaillant,
  • with reference to mannerslike Boivin,
  • in reference to a specific anecdote, such as Mangematin, Percepuce…
  • with reference to geographical originsuch as Lorrain, Nouveau (= “newcomer”), Derouen….
  • by analogy (physical or moral): nicknames of animals or objects (like Hare, Hammer…), even names of professions, regions, saints…

To work out its classifications, running from 1891 to 1990, the site is based on the file of the communes of birth of the National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies (INSEE). It is even possible to search by region or department in order to Find out in which region your surname is most common. Indeed, “this patronymic file records for each municipality the number of births by surname”.

Is your surname in danger of dying out?

In 1973, a genealogist, Michel Tesnière, published a study proving that many surnames would die out and that we will all end up calling ourselves “Martin, Bernard, Thomas, etc.” on the pretext that “all closed bodies eventually die out” and that rare names would all disappear one by one over marriages and due to a low birth rate. A theory that has already been proven wrong, especially because of immigration, since 520,000 different surnames existed in France in 1890, whereas today there are 1,300,000 according to INSEE.

That’s much more diversity than for names in some countries, like China! In Vietnam and China, for example, for hundreds of years, families traditionally took the same name as the ruling dynasty in their region. As a result, half of Vietnam’s population bears the name “N’Guyen”!

Surnames: origin, etymology, transmission, popularity