Thursday 25 October 2012

French Naming Conventions

The Use of Last Names - In General

Until recent times in history, the 11th century, last names were not used. There were a lot less people and generally you were known as ‘John the baker’s son’ or Mary the seamstress from Orono.

The tradition of using a surname took hold among the nobility first, and then gradually, by the 14th century, most people started to adopt a last name.
Did you know?
Last names began to be used by commoners at different times throughout Europe. The practice came into fashion in France in the 13th century while it didn’t take hold in Germany until the 16th century. Last name usage was not compulsory in some Scandinavian countries until the 20th century.

Today in Iceland and Norway last names are still not used by its Native population and even though non-Natives do have last names they do not use them in day-to-day dealings. I recently was on vacation in Iceland and took a look at their telephone book. People are listed by their first names first and then by their last names. So, in order to find someone in the telephone book you first look-up the person by their first name and then follow down the list until you find their last name.
Last name usage in the beginning, by our standards, was somewhat confusing. A person could be called Sam Taylor because he sewed and his daughter could be named Sandra Atwood, because she lived near the woods. If you came to a town you had never been to before then you would not know that Sandra Atwood was Sam Taylor’s daughter.

It was not until the 15th century that surnames began to be inherited rather than to be taken from one’s appearance, job, town and a whole host of other possibilities.

Please keep in mind that this is a very general look at how last names came into being and how they were formed. Last name usage was and still is a very complex subject and varies immensely through-out the world.

Saint’s Names

In 1703 the Rituel du Diocèse de Québec was written. This book set out the rules, which the church and its people were to follow, including the names one was allowed to choose when naming their child.

“The Church forbids Priests from allowing profane or ridiculous names to be given to the child, such as Apollon, Diane, etc. But it commands that the child be given the name of a male or female Saint, depending on its sex, so that it can imitate the virtues and feel the effects of God’s protection.”1

The list includes 1,251 acceptable names for boys and 373 for girls.1

The Structure of French-Canadian First Name

Up until the mid-1900s French-Canadian first names given at the time of baptism had a certain structure. Usually, not always, the child was given three names. The first name, often Marie or Joseph indicated the sex of the baby. The second name was often the name of the sex appropriate God-parent. The third was the name the child was called.

Sometimes the child’s baptism record may only show one or two of the names, usually the first and second but not the name the child was called. Sometimes the child was baptized with only one name but the family bible shows the three names. For instance, my Grandfather, Adelard, was baptized as Napoleon, period. When I asked my Grandmother what my grandfather’s full name had been she said Joseph Napoleon Adelard; however, I had never seen the name Joseph associated with him. Never-the-less, my Grandfather is known to have had all three names. As an aside - Napoleon was not my grandfather’s Godfather’s name - there is always an exception to the rule.

Another example is my grandmother. She was baptized as Marie Anna Anastasia Yvonne Tremblay. She was called, in everyday life, Yvonne.

Baptismal Names

Often times, especially in small rural towns, two or more children born roughly at the same time but to different parts of the extended family will have the same names. It was, up until the late 1800s, usual when baptizing a child to give it the sex appropriate name of the godparent. For instance, a man named Ignace Lafrance has two brothers: one named Jean-Baptiste and the other Jean-Paul. Jean-Baptiste and his wife have a baby one month before his brother Jean-Paul and his wife have their baby. Jean-Baptiste’s baby is a boy and so they ask Ignace if he would act as the godfather. The baby is baptized with the name Ignace. One month later Jean-Paul and his wife have their baby and it too is a boy. They also ask Ignace if he would be their child’s godfather. Now you have three people named Ignace Lafrance in one small town, two of whom are roughly the same age. It can make determining kinships a bit tricky.

Sometimes gender specific names were given to the opposite sex but almost always appear as the second name, such as Marie Joseph for a female or Jean Marie for a male.

Some names that now-a-days are gender specific were earlier also gender specific but for the opposite gender, such as Phillipe which was historically a female name but now is a male name, or the name Anne which was a male name but now almost exclusively a female name.

Reuse of First Names

It is extremely common to find, in the French-Canadian family, all boys and all girls being given the same sex appropriate first name such as Jean for the boys or Marie for the girls. A family’s naming profile might look like this: Marie-Louise, Marie-Angélique, Marie, Marie-Josephe, Jean-Louis, Jean-Baptiste and Jean-Paul. The child in question would be called by the second name most often but it is also common to see for instance Marie-Louise documented on her marriage certificate simply as Marie making it impossible without other documentation to tell the difference between her and her sister who only carries the name Marie.

Many times one will find huge errors in the genealogical record due to mistaking one person for another because of the practice of giving the same first name to more than one child. An example of this can be found with the person for whom our first Catudal to come to New France worked. His name was François Duplessis dit Faber (1689-1762); his brother’s name was François Antoine Duplessis dit Faber (1703-1733). Some very reputable researchers have interchanged the two brothers without realizing it because the second brother often was simply called François. Both brothers were in the New France military. One of the two brothers died in 1733 during a battle between the Renard (Fox), the Sauk Indians and the French. The other brother upon retiring went to France to spend out his final days. It is the latter François Duplessis dit Faber (1689-1762) for whom our Jean-Baptiste Catudal dit St-Jean worked.

Another practice, which was very common amongst our French ancestors, was to re-use the name of a child who had died. This practice was used up until around the early 1930s after which it seems to have gone out of favour.

A practice which has been a major stumbling block to some people researching family history is the practice of re-naming a child the same name as one of the children in the same family who did not die. Although this is rare, and I have to admit I do not understand the dynamics, it did occur or at least that is what the records show. I am not referring to the practise I discussed above where-by all boys and all girls in one family would all be given the same sex appropriate first name, usually Marie and Joseph, but would be called something else in everyday life. I mean that some families show two children with identical names who grow-up and get married and have their own children all the while using the same first name.

French-Canadian Women Kept/Keep Their Maiden Names

French-Canadian women living in Québec today keep their maiden name and are known by that name in religious, administrative and legal documents; not by their husband’s names. It has always been so; even when present day Québec was a part of New France.

As a part of the civil law system found only in Québec, the rest of Canada follows the British common law system; women in present day Québec continue to use their maiden name for all things official.

The present day French-Canadian women living in Québec may be introduced as Mrs. Chabot wife of Mr. Chabot at a gathering but for all things outside of a social gathering she is referred to by her maiden name.

When the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1763 bringing an end to French rule and to New France, the present day province of Québec was formed albeit quite different in land mass as we know of it today. It was only a thin strip of land that lay on the North shore of the St. Lawrence River. However, what had been New France territory until then still housed a large number of French speaking people who still practiced the French ways. This included women who often times kept their maiden names

Once British rule began and a border between the United States and Canada was established, Canada came under British rule. Those who strayed outside of Québec, although allowed to maintain their traditions, often found it easier to conform to the British common law system. By the late 1800s one can see some of our relatives start to move out of Québec to other parts of Canada, mostly Ontario but also to Alberta and to the USA. The further a-field they went the more likely they were to adopt the naming conventions of the British.

French-Canadian women of the next generation outside of Québec started to take their husband’s name much more readily. This trend started to change in and around the early 1970s and early 1980s when it became a cry from the women’s liberation camps that women should be allowed and encouraged to keep their maiden name.

Today it is fairly common to see women throughout The United States and Canada using their maiden names in favour of the option to adopt their husband’s name. In most parts of Western Europe, women are known under their husband’s name – that part of women’s liberation never quite caught on in Europe.

Alterations by Personal Choice

A common phenomenon which started upon immigration to the new world was that people changed their own names for any number of reasons: to sound less ethnic, to be more pronounceable in English, to change a surname which had unpleasant connotations associated with it, or maybe simply to be able to hide. Often times the names were direct translations of their original names, Schneider to Taylor or Schwarz to Black.

First name alterations were also fairly common and can often be seen when French Canadians went to the States in search of work in the late 1800s. You often see simple alterations such as someone changing a first name from Jean to John or François to Frank and the like. Sometimes our relatives changed their names completely, so much so that the new name might not have resembled their birth name at all as in the case of two brothers, Dominique Catudal (1827-) [2643] and Jean-Marie Catudal (1831-After 1880) [2654] who both moved to Vermont in the late 1850s. Once there they changed their names to John St. John; both of them. They lived in the same town and both took the same name.

In present day Canada the Change of Name Act, R.S.O 1990, c. C.7 Section (2) states that if one changes their name then as a matter of confidentiality the following will happen:

(a) the application shall be sealed and filed in the office of the Registrar General;

(b) no notice of the change of name shall be published in The Ontario Gazette and no notice of the application or of the change of name shall be given to the Ministry of the Solicitor General or any person;

(c) if the person’s birth was registered in Ontario, the original registration shall be withdrawn from the registration files and sealed in a separate file, and a new birth registration showing the new name shall be made; and

(d) the change of name shall not be entered in the change of name index or noted under section 31 of the Vital Statistics Act . R.S.O. 1990, c. C.7, s. 8 (2); 1997, c. 17, s. 4 (4, 5); 2006, c. 19, Sched. B, s. 3.

God help the genealogists who come after us, they do not stand a chance of finding someone who decides to change his or her name.

Not only is it possible in present day Canada to change your last name but also your first and or middle names as well. I once worked with Bridget. Bridget was her third attempt at finding a first name that she felt suited her; she had always kept her last name intact though.

Alterations Not By Personal Choice — “Do You Ear What I Ear[1]

Anthropology is made up of four disciplines: Social Anthropology – the study of cultures, Archaeology – the study of artifacts  Physical or Biological Anthropology and Linguistics – the study of language. While majoring in Anthropology I remember sitting in my first year class of Linguistics and the professor saying uhungry? wachyaeet? Most understood him to mean ‘are you hungry? what did you eat?’ and that was indeed what he had said. He had just speeded up the words and cut off the endings of the words as we might do when talking to friends. He used to like doing this at the beginning of class; a sort of attention-getter and many times we did not have a clue what he had said. I learnt that particularly across cultures that one might think they are hearing one thing but without the experience or benefit of the other’s language or culture we can make some amazing errors in judgment about what we hear.

When an English speaking enumerator took the census in a predominantly French speaking area, often times the French names were spelt the best way he could make out from the sound of the name. Often times the English enumerator just did not care to be accurate. There has always existed a tension between the French and English parts of Canada and we see many interesting adulterations of French names because of this.

Other problems occurred such as a person being asked their name, misunderstanding the question because they spoke another language and then answering the assumed question. Rather than understanding the question “What is your name?” they may have thought they were being asked “Where do you come from?” So an answer of Les Cèdres instead of Massias would cause the official to put down something like Cedar. From then on the person would be known as Mr. or Mrs. Cedar.

During a census it was not uncommon for the person answering the door to be a child who sometimes mispronounced their last name so that the census taker might have documented Lafrance for Lafrain or Tompay for Tremblay.

When depending on someone else’s memory to ascertain a third party’s surname it can often times be falsely recounted. For instance, you ask your grandfather the married name of his Aunt who has been dead for 20 years and who was never really welcomed in the family after her marriage to the rotten so-and-so. He might remember her married name as Laspé when in reality it was Lapres. After not having used or referred to a particular surname for a long time people can easily mix it up just enough so that the name they say no longer has any relationship to what the actual name had been.

Spelling and Standardized Spellings

How many times have you given your name to someone only to have him or her ask you “how do you spell that?” It is assumed that you can answer the question. It was not always so.

Once last names came into use the next problem occurred and that was how to spell the last name. Most people did not read or write so it was left to the person recording an event to write the name the best way they could. Perhaps at another event the person’s name would be written down by someone else. Sometimes in both occurrences the name was spelled the same; many times this did not happen. I have seen records referencing the same person, documented by the very same priest over the course of some years with different spellings of the person’s last name.

A big obstacle when searching records for a certain name is that there are no standardized spellings of first or last names. This means that a name can be spelt many different ways, without making a spelling error, but sound identical to one another: Case in point, Audet, Audette, Odet and Odette or the German name Myer, Maier and Meier.

Bad Handwriting and Faded Records

As you know, very few people in the history of our Country and consequently our family could read and write. Those who could sometimes wrote just beautifully. They were in the minority. Handwriting can be so sloppy that it makes the record useless to anyone. Now with the use of computers the problem of misspelling is becoming rarer but the transcription of the old documents into various databases by well meaning people who do not document when there is a question regarding spelling and make a ‘best guess’ is now becoming a fairly big problem. There are standardized methods people should employ when copying data from old records and that includes copying exactly what is there even if it does not make sense. One can always make a note about what one thinks about what was documented but it is only an opinion. Many people are now putting their guesses into a growing number of databases.

Consistency of Last Name Usages

For some unknown reason many of our relatives oscillated between their last name and their dit name without apparent rhyme or reason. Often records of our Catudal relatives suddenly have them documented as St-Jean and back again. I have found no consistencies in this phenomenon.


In Genealogy all names can be sound coded in order that one can look for all possible sound-alikes and this ‘sound coding’ is called soundex.

<algorithm, text> An algorithm for encoding a word so that similar sounding words encode the same.

The first letter is copied unchanged then subsequent letters are encoded as follows:
bfpv  = “1”
cgjkqsxzç  = “2”
dt = “3”
l = “4”
mnñ = “5”
r = “6”

Other characters are ignored and repeated; characters are encoded as though they were a single character. Encoding stops when the resulting string is four characters long, adding trailing “0”s if it is shorter. For example, “SMITH” or “SMYTHE” would both be encoded as “S530”.7

The name Catudal has a soundex code of C334, which means that the names Cautal, Cottel, Catadal and 50 other names must be considered when searching for Catudal. This covers only sound-alikes.

The Meaning of  the Name Catudal

The name Catudal comes from the Breton language. Catudal comes from the name Caduudal which is first seen in the record from 840 to 847 and from the name Cadodal which appears in 1060. The prefix Cat, in the ancient Breton language, means combat. 11,12 ‘Uuo’ is a preposition and a prefix meaning ‘enough’. The ending ‘Tal’ means ‘to have value’ or ‘to make payment’. Therefore, the name Catudal means something a kin to, ‘to be good at battle’.

Please keep in mind that although the Catudal name can be traced to the 800s, it does not mean that we have any relationship to those who may have carried that name because, as mentioned above, last name usage did not start until the 11th century among royalty and the 14th century for the rest of the population of France, and it was not until the 15th century that last names were handed down from father to child. Just because someone was known as he who is good in battle does not mean that we are related to him. It does not mean that we are not related but rather that we cannot assume that to be the case.

The dit name of St-Jean has both habitational and religious roots. Many places in France carry this name. The place names were given as a dedication to Saint John the Baptist.

Be Very Flexible

I remember one of the first people I entered in my database was my great grandfather Alfred Tremblay. I had some trouble finding a record of him because someone had gone and spelt his name as Fred Trembly. Well! I thought. What is wrong with them! I recounted this experience to a member of the Nipissing branch of the Ontario Genealogical Society looking for sympathy. She started to laugh. She said, “Is that all?” Now some ten years later I often look back on that time with a wistful gaze and think to myself “If only it were that easy all of the time.”

Dit Names

A very important aspect to French Canadian naming conventions is 'dit' name usage. For an in-depth discussion of dit name usage please see my blog 

Sources — Specific

1.         Electronic Source; Montréal, PRDH-Programme de recherche en démographie historique Université de. First and Last Names. In,
2.         Electronic Source; 2005, Musée de la civilisation. Men of Faith and Action. In,
3.         Electronic Source; Couture, Patrick. La Nouvelle-France-New France Map. In, - On page 57.
4.         Book; Goodridge, Alberta: Goodridge Social and Agricultural Society. Harvest of Memories: A History of the Districts of Beaverton, Goodridge, Larkin, Maloy, Truman and White Rat, 1999.
5.         Book; Society, Forgotten Echoes Historical. Forgotten Echoes: A History of Blackfoot and Surrounding Area, 1982.
6.         Electronic Journal; “Do You Ear What I Ear.”
7.         Electronic Journal; “Definition: Soundex.”
8.         Electronic Source; Wikipedia. Genealogy. In,
9.         Electronic Source; Name History and Origin For. In,
10.      Electronic Journal; Wikipedia. “Image: Bretagen Map.Png.”
11.      Loth, J. M. (1884). Vocabulaire vieux-breton. Paris,, F. Vieweg.
12.      Loth, J. M. (1890). Chrestomathie bretonne. Paris,, É. Bouillon.

Sources — General

Luc Lépine, The Military Roots of the ‘dit’ Names (From December 2002 Connections ©2002 QFHS – Québec Family History Society)
Linda W. Jones, Genealogy: Acadian & French-Canadian Style
Bob Quintin, The “dit” Name in Franco-American Genealogy
Rev. Cyprien Tanguay, Dictionnaire généalogique des familles Canadiennes, Volume 7
André Corvisier, L’Armée française de la fin du XVIIe siècle au ministère Choiseul: le soldat, Paris, 1964, 2 volumes.
Robert J. Quintin, The “Dit” Name: French-Canadian Surnames, Aliases, Adulterations and Anglicizations.

[1]          Neil, Michael John. Ancestry Daily News article. 27 July 1999.h ttp://