Did you know that 'dit' is used for masculine names, 'dite' for feminine. The word dit is used to reference non-gender specific dit names. The word dite is only used with-in the proper name of a female.
What are dit names?
The French word dit translates in English to the word 'said'. What does this mean?, well, different things to different researchers. The term dit to some researchers is translated to a.k.a., also known as; to some it translates as 'nickname'; some translate it as 'alias'; while others translates it as 'distinguisher'.
The most popular explanation is that the French in New France took or were given a dit name as a way to distinguish themselves from one another.
Dit names where an additional name given or taken by someone by which they were or could be also known as. This practise was historically used by the French and the Scots.
As in most things dealing with history, the question as to why the French followed the practise of using a dit name is controversial. The reason it is controversial is that there does not appear to be any hard and fast rules as to when and why people followed this practise. Here are some of the common reasons dit names where given or used:
To distinguish one person or family from another
To demonstrate the point - in a small town there are two John Smiths who happen to be cousins therefore, they come from the same immediate family. Both are tailors, which is the family business. To distinguish one from the other, one of them added to his name John Smith dit Taylor meaning John Smith the tailor. The other changed his name to John Smith dit Tremblay because he lived near a grove of Aspens. Aspen wood in French is Tremblay. Distinguishing between the two would have no longer posed a problem.
Soldiers - Decreed by law
It is often said that dit names were given to soldiers in New France to distinguish one from another with-in the same troupe. Soldiers under one commander might have been given dit names which all began with a particular letter of the alphabet, such as in the Dugre Company - the soldiers were given dit names that all began with the letter D; another troupe might have all had names of parts of the body. Between 1764 and 1768 the soldiers from the Casaux company where all given dit names of vegetables, such as Lalétue, Lachicorée, and Lecerfeuil and so on.
The dit name was an identifier. One would know immediately which troupe someone belonged to because of the types of dit names given.
In 1716 it became a requirement that all soldiers be given a dit name. What is most interesting is that in New France a dit name could be passed down from father to son and often was. On the other hand, this was not done in France. A soldier's dit name in France was a personal thing. The son would not have taken his father's dit name.
To pay respect
Some people took the family name of the person who raised them. There were a fair number of casual adoptions in the 1600 to 1800 hundreds often due to the mother dying during the birth of one of her children. It wouldn't have been uncommon for a woman to have taken-in the child or children of her dead sister for instance. The child would, according to French law, have kept their family name but often would tack on their adoptive father's last name as a dit name.
To show where one came from
The standard prefix in a French name showing origin or referring to a place is 'de' as in Jacques de St. Dennis which means Jack from St. Dennis. However, some people in New France would add a dit name and not a de name of a place or location such as Henry Beauclerc dit Normandie who was the son of William the Conqueror.
Paying religious homage
The population in New France was Catholic. Non-catholics were not allowed into the colony. The first and only - attested to – Jewish person to set foot in New France was 20-year-old Esther Brandeau; she actually entered the colony disguised as a boy named Jacques La Fague. It was not long before she was found out. She was given every opportunity to convert which she refused, so she was sent back to France. There was a Jewish person who was hired by the Hudson Bay Company, Ferdinande Jacobs, and came to Canada in 1732. However, Hudson Bay was under England’s rule and not a part of New France; therefore, in this case, Ferdinande was allowed to stay.
In 1627 the Catholic missionaries in New France were concerned that some Huguenots were making their way into Acadia and convinced Cardinal Richelieu to add a clause to the charter of the Company of New France which said that the only people who could settle in New France were "natural-born French Catholics".
Some people took dit names as a way to pay homage to their favourite saint such as François St-Jean or Michel St-Pierre and the like.
Dropping the family name in favour of the dit name
Anglicization of a last name often meant dropping the family name in favour of the dit name as often happened with our Catudal name when a Catudal family moved to the States. The name Catudal is and was a difficult name for English speakers to pronounce and spell. Many of our Catudal relatives who immigrated to the States dropped the name Catudal and went by St-Jean or anglicized the name further to St. John. NOTE: I use a hyphen for St-Jean but a period for St. John simply because the French usually use a hyphen for St-Jean and that St. John is an Anglicization and spelled by Americans with a period.
There are a myriad of reasons one may have taken or been given a dit name. The reasons mentioned above are only some of the more popular reasons I have come across but by no means the only reasons.
As I said above, the most popular explanation is that the French in New France took or were given a dit name as a way to distinguish themselves from one another. My question is, why would someone with an extremely rare name of Catudal be given, by his commander, one of the most common dit names in New France, St-Jean, if the whole idea was to distinguish himself from others? There are 172 family names besides Catudal who also carry the dit name of St-Jean; the most common of which are Coitou, Langlois, Laperche, Martin and Serre.
One reason that our Catudal was given one of the most common dit names in New France could be argued that it didn't matter because he would always be able to be distinguished in his troupe because of the unusual combination Catudal dit St-Jean. However, when some of our relatives started to drop the Catudal name in favour of St-Jean they no longer where using St-Jean as a distinguisher because they now shared that name with 3,688 other people pre-1800.
The number of times a last name appears in the historical records of New France pre 1800 has been ranked by the PRDH Le Programme de recherche en démographie historique (The Research Program in Historical Demography) from the University of Montréal.
The name Catudal is ranked at 1,479 meaning that 1,478 names are more common in the New France historical record. The name Langlois is the 15th most common family name and Martin the12th . Therefore, it wasn't a matter of someone having a very rare name and thus was given a popular dit name because it would not have changed the fact that the name was rare.
I think a thorough study of dit names, naming conventions, usage, and practises needs to be done. After 8 years of genealogical research into French family history including but not limited to Catudal family history I can only say that there appears to be a myriad of reasons dit names were used not readily definable because the practise was often times solely subjective and had nothing to do with custom, tradition or law.
The last person who I am aware of to have used the dit name of St-Jean and St. John in favour of dropping their birth name of Catudal was Magloire Catudal (1903-1977) who was baptized under the name Catudal without the dit name of St-Jean and who married under the name Magloire Catudal without the dit name of St-Jean but who, after moving from Québec to Alberta used the dit name of St-Jean and St. John. His decision to use the dit name instead of his birth name may have had something to do with the fact that it is said that he left Québec shortly after marrying so as to avoid the law. Apparently the authorities were closing in on him because of his side business, moon-shining. Anyhow, I am not aware of anyone after the early 1970's who dropped their birth name of Catudal in favour of the dit name of St-Jean or St. John.
A good source for dit name lists is at http://www.afgs.org/ditnames/index1.html