What Are French Surnames?

The French name system is unique. Understanding what French last names mean can be both fun and enlightening. French surnames are derived from the patronymic system, meaning the name is usually passed on from the father to the children. Therefore, a single French name may have multiple variations depending on the family who carries it.

France’s surnames, like those in many other cultures, are broken into three categories, patronymic, occupational, and descriptive. French surnames have also been affected by history, with some surnames experiencing a shift in pronunciation and spelling when further back in history.

Popular French Surnames

France is a large, diverse country and its people have a variety of surnames. While the exact number is unknown, it is estimated that there are over 100,000 French surnames in existence. Here are ten of the most popular French surnames and some of the variations:

• Martin – Martins, Martine, Martineau,

• Bertrand – Berthrand, Bertran, Bertrande
• Tremblay – Trembley, Trimble, Trimbley
• Dubois – Duboisa, Duboisse, Duboisan
• Durand –Durend, Durante, Durandt
• Moreau – Morel, Morreau, Morand
• Simon – Symone, Symons, Symonette
• LaRoche – Laroche, LaRochelle, LaRoches
• Ricaud – Ricauds, Ricaut, Ricaudet
• Dupont – DuPont, Duponts, DuPonty

Occupational French Surnames

Due to the hierarchical French society in the Middle Ages, many names derived from people’s professions. For example, some surnames come from crafts like Taillefer (“cut iron”) or Dubois (“wood worker”). While many of these names have become more generic over time, many still point to someone’s profession or past. Here are some of the names and the professions they were associated with:

• Rousseau – shoemaker
• Taillefer – cut iron
• Charpentier – carpenter
• Boucher – butcher
• Fournier – baker
• Breton – farmer
• Champagne – wine maker
• Charron – wagon maker
• Gauvin – smith
• Lapierre – stone worker
• Ménard – carpenter

Descriptive French Surnames

Many French surnames are derived from physical characteristics, landscape descriptions, or nicknames associated with a person. Some of the descriptors describe a person’s hair color, while others describe the physical characteristics of the person such as height or size. Here are some examples of nicknames and physical descriptions:

• Beau – “beautiful”
• Bellevue – “beautiful view”
• Chatenay – “oak tree”
• Court – “short”
• Faubourg – “suburb”
• Grand – “tall”
• Legrand – “tall and large”
• Noir – “black”
• Rousseau – “red head”
• Labelle – “beautiful”
• Petit – “small”
• Petitjean – “little John”
• Chauvin – “stubborn”
• Ricaud – “rich”
• Ferret – “iron maker”

Old French Surnames

The oldest of the French surnames are those that derive from place names and patronymics. Many of these oldest French surnames stem from the Duchy of Normandy that was conquered by William the Conqueror in 1066. A few of the oldest French surnames that are still in existence are:

• Bernier – “a form of Bernard”
• Desmarais – “of the sea”
• Dubuisson – “from the woods”
• Dion – “son of Dion”
• Lecomte – “count”
• Louvel – “wolf”
• Legrand – “big or tall”
• Leclerc – “clerk”
• Lemoine – “a form of Lemuel”
• Rousseau – “red-haired”
• Rambo – “battle cry”

Regional French Surnames

Due to the large number of dialects spoken in some locales of France, many French surnames are regional varieties. The regional variations signify both the dialect as well as the geographical area. Examples of regional French last names include:

• Vendee – “from Vendee”
• Provence – “from Provence”
• Quimper – “from Quimper”
• Bordeaux – “from Bordeaux”
• LaRoche – “a form of Rock”
• LaTuque – “from Tuque”
• Languedoc – “the language of Occitania”
• Langlois – “a form of Longo”
• Langlais – “the language of the Franks”
• Cathelain – “from Catalain”
• Penard – “of the nobleman”

Common French Surnames Outside France

Due to the large number of people with French backgrounds who moved to the US and Canada, French last names are found in many different countries. Canadian provinces such as Quebec and Yukon Territory, among others, have large populations of French speakers. Some of the most common French surnames include:

• Boudreault – “a form of Boudreau”
• Desmarais – “of the sea”
• Dupont – “son of the bridge”
• Fernandes – “son of Fernando”
• Martin – “warrior of Mars”
• LeBlanc – “the white”
• Levesque – “the bishop”
• Michaud – “a form of Michel”
• Moreau – “son of the Moor”
• Richard – “powerful ruler”
• Rousseau – “redhead”
• Tremblay – “trembling”

French Female Surnames

The French surname system is somewhat complicated for women, as it is for many cultures. Traditionally, women drop the feminine endings when their surname is passed along, meaning a woman’s name will not match the name of her father exactly. Female versions of names are not always passed along and the original version is often preferred. Here are some traditional female forms of the most common French surnames:

• Bernier – Bernière, Bernières
• Desmarais – Desmarais
• Dubuisson – Dubuissonne
• Lecomte – Lecomte
• Louvel – Louvelle
• Legrand – Legrande
• Leclerc – Leclere
• Lemoine – Lemoine
• Rousseau – Rousseau
• Rambo – Rambaux
• Vendee – Vendéenne
• Provence – Provençale
• Quimper – Quimpéreine
• Bordeaux – Bordeleau
• LaRoche – LaRochise
• LaTuque – LaTocque
• Languedoc – Languédocienne
• Langlois – Langloise
• Langlais – Langlaise
• Cathelain – Cathelaine
• Penard – Pennarde

With its long and varied history, France has many unique and interesting surnames. Understanding the various meanings and origins of French surnames can be a great way to learn about the culture and the people who have them. Whether it is from an occupation, physical description, place, or patronymic origin, each French surname has a deeper, hidden meaning behind it. From the oldest of the French surnames to more modern-day ones, each one carries its own history and lineage that can be traced back far into France’s past.

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