I’m often asked why there are so many variation in French names…and there are many, which obviously makes our “task” that much more difficult…but interesting!
The following article (one of the many hundreds on the “In Search of Our Acadian Roots” CD-ROM) has been translated and is reproduced here with thanks to Claude Perrault and the Socièté Généalogique Canadienne-Française.
Translation of SELECTED PARTS of “Les Variances des Noms Propres et des Prénoms et leurs Surnoms”, by Claude Perrault…published by Loisirs St-Edouard Inc., 1981-1982.
Where did the variations of a name come from?
A1. The spelling of names in Canada, from the discovery of Jacques Cartier, in 1534, and in the two centuries following, was not fixed (or stable). We could add that this was also true for part of the 19th Century.
What were the reasons for that?
A1. At the time, few people were literate. In fact, you can discover in almost every parish register, this phrase: “ils ont déclaré ne savoir signer et ils ont fait leur marque ordinaire, c’est a dire, une croix” (they have declared not knowing how to sign and made an ordinary mark, that is to say, a cross (or “X”).). Is this last phrase 100% true? Surely not, for we have found many acts where the witnesses were physicians, notaries, engineers etc. whom, according to the officiating minister, were people who did not know how to sign their name?
One can therefore ask why the officiating minister acted in such a way. Was it to save paper? It’s possible, but one thing is certain; the officiating minister did not always collect all the signatures of those who could sign their names, nor did he note all the witnesses present at the ceremonies.
Besides, the officiating minister, or the person who transcribed the double of the register for civil archives, often did this task at a later date, when the witnesses were no longer there to sign!
The same phrase can also be found in notarized acts, and there again, it is not necessarily 100% true that they were unable to sign their name.
You will see this for yourself in your research, when you compare both versions of the register…that of the parish and the double. Similarly, you’ll find the same thing when you compare the originals of the notarized acts and the copies.
A2. Because people pronounced their names differently, depending on the region they originated from. From there, to write the name according to the sound of it…there is only a short step for the ministers, notaries and all the public officials…whatever their function…who nevertheless had to write down the name.
Example: Payet, Peyet, Paillet, Payette or (even closer to home)…Sire, Syre, Cyre, Cyr.
A3. Because in the registers, the officiating ministers indicated the name that they were “told”, or those that they heard pronounced. In both cases, they wrote the name their own way and according to their knowledge of French.
Example: Miet, Millet, Myet, Millette, etc.
A4. Because some ministers were careless and did not attach too much importance to the registration they were making, be it for baptisms, marriages, or sepultures.
Example: Claude Bussot dit Lacouture had 19 children baptized at Lavaltrie. The name of his wife varies at nearly every one of these baptisms!
Why does the variation of a name go all the way to its total transformation, for different reasons?
A1. The location of the residence, with names such as: Des Rochers, Des Ruisseaux, Des Pères, Durivage, Du chesne, Du mont, Du pont, La vallé, La montagne, La rivière, etc.
Houde; became Desrochers
Trottier; became Desruisseaux
Couillard; became Desprs
Estienne; became Durivage
Guret; became Dumont
Perrault; became Duchesnes
A2. The place of origin, with names like Tourangeau, Poitevin, Champagne, Picard, d’Anjou, Saintonge, Provenal, Bourguignon, Languedoc, etc.
Barbeau; became Poitevin
Danis; became Tourangeau
Aubin; became St-Onge
Lacoste; became Languedoc
Foran/Faran/Pharand; became Vivarias
A3. The occupation practiced; such as miller, blacksmith, well-man (in charge of a “well”), ferry-man (who would transport people, goods and livestock in his ferry), baker, stone carrier, harvester, tanner (selling or working with animal hides), spoon-maker, trader in salt, tailor, etc.
miller -> meunier; became Dumoulin
blacksmith -> forgeron; became Laforge
well-man -> puisatier; became Dupuis
baker -> boulanger; became Ptrin
ferry-man -> traversier; became Latraverse
stone-transporter -> transporteur de pierre; became Chartier
nail-maker -> clou=nail; became Cloutier
bread-maker -> four=oven; became Fournier
harvester/reaper -> moissonneur; became Mtivier
worker in hides -> travailleur de peaux; became Pelletier
spoon-maker -> fabriquant de cuillers; became Cuillerier
trader in salt -> trafiquant sur le sel; became Saulnier
A4. The profession; such as lawyer, teacher, constable etc.
lawyer -> procureur; became Bailly
teacher -> enseignant; became Lemaitre
constable/bailiff -> membre de la prvt; became Prevost
A5. By whim or fancy…and even grudge and mockery.
Billeron; became LaFatigue
Rocan dit la ville; became Bastien
Ledoux; became Latreille
Seguin; became Ladroute
A6. Because of one’s financial situation, military, or other. Examples:
Nicholas Boyer; became Nicholas Argentcourt
Perrault; became Chateauguay
A7. The shame of a personal past…or of one’s relatives, after a crime had been committed…or, for any other reason judged sufficiently serious by the person involved, such as exercising the occupation of executioner.
Note: See Andre Lachance’s volume on the executioners of New France, entitled “Le bourreau au Canada sous le Regime francais” (the executioner in Canada, under the French Regime), published by the Societe d’Histoire du Quebec, Cahiers d’Histoires vol. 18.
A8. For any other reason caused by euphonics or the difficulty of pronouncing a name.
Cuvillon; became Quevillon
Delquel; became Dziel
How were some of the modifications of the names done by usage?
A1. By subtraction of certain letters.
Houde; became Houd
Pelletier; became Peltier
Rivest; became Rivet
A2. By modification of the ending.
Aur; became Auray
Leclerc; became Leclair
Perrot; became Perrault/Perreault etc.
A3. By the introduction of certain letters into the name:
Houde; became Houlde
Hunault; became Henau
Chalifou; became Chalifour
Guillon; became Guyon
A4. By the ommission of the first syllable:
Thiboutot; became Boutot and Bouthat
A5. By another name meaning about the same thing:
Roquebrune; became Larocque (to express solidity, firmness, hardiness).
Note: The following e-mail message was subsequently received from Robert Black… “Just a short note about the variations of the names. One of the names used was Larocque & Rocquebrune. It says “Roquebrune; became Larocque (to express solidity, firmness, hardiness).” This is totally wrong, the original name is Larocque meaning a tour or keep as the rook in the game of chess. The name Rocquebrune came from a town once owned or controled by the Larocque family of Larocque-Ordan in the department of Gers in France. Rocquebrune is about 15 km away and still has a tower standing made of redish brown stone hence Roquebrune, I have been to both places. The Chateau of Larocque has the remnants of a tower built in about 1050 as part of the foundation. My mother was born a Larocque-Rocquebrune. Robert Black
To use a factual case, let’s take the one of Yolande CYR published in “Cahiers Gen-Histo” no. 1, on page 19. One notes in her lineage, that there is a Pierre CYR married on 6-11-1828 at Ste-Scholastique, to Julienne Larocque, daughter of Antoine and Genevieve Choret. If one looks for this last marriage under the name Larocque, it is not found! Because Antoine married under the name of Antoine de Rocbrune.
Another source of difficulty in your research, will come from variations (or the total changing) of the first name, as in the following examples:
1. At baptism, the person receives certain first names, where the last listed is usually the one by which he/she is known throughout his/her life….whereas, in France the opposite is customary!
2. At marriage (or death), if the person has been known throughout his/her life by a first name that does not appear among the ones given at baptism…and he/she marries or is buried under the “usual” name, this will of course, cause difficulties to his descendants and to the researchers.
Example: Wilfred Vzina married to Philomne Payette dite St-Amour.
Translating some excerpts of well-known and respected historians is all well and good, but these tend to give the impression to the readers, that these changes only occurred in New France…or that these names were mutilated only in the United States. Eventhough I (Claude Perrault) will translate several sources, all the reasons for the name changes, are not necessarily found there.
Here is a case from my own (Claude Perrault) tree which happened not THAT long ago. It just may give insight as to how some name changes _could_ have occurred.
My maternal granfather’s name was Joseph-Edouard Walsh (now you know where the red hair comes from). In any case, he was the eldest of twelve children. The first six were baptized “Walsh”, as was their father and grandfather. THEN, for whatever reason, the parish (in the county of Portneuf) received a new parish priest. The latter baptized the last six…”Welsh”, When the six younger ones started school, they had to bring their “birth certificates”. There, the school mistress, seeing the name on the birth certificates, proceeded to admonish the youngsters whenever they claimed their name was “Walsh”. “Obviously”, scolded the teacher, “it is Walsh”…that was what was entered on all their birth certificates! She decided that this was how they should learn how to pronounce and sign their name!
In a nutshell, today I, (Claude Perrault) have cousins whose names are “Walsh” and I have other cousins, whose name are “Welsh”. All are descendants of the same couple.
Military Names (“Noms de guerre”)
In “Les Institutions Militaires de la Nouvelle-France et les Archives” by Louis Lemoyne (published by Loisiers St-Edouard Inc., Montreal, 1981-1982), there are some lists of “noms de guerre”.
What is surprising (and this is something that I [Claude Perrault] had not noticed before), is that the officers as well as the enlisted men had “noms de guerre”. Also, I can’t help but notice all the humorous names. In the great, great majority of cases,we will never know the stories behind those names…which is really too bad!.
Nevertheless, here are a few…with their meanings…and I’ll let imagine how they came to be! The number in brackets, indicates how many individuals bore that “nom de guerre” in the registers of the invalids found at the hospital called, l’Institut National des Invalides” (France). I’ll just go through the “B’s” and “C’s”, and pick only a few examples, to give you an idea.
Bonnenouvelle (10) -> good news
Bonne volont (17) -> good will
Bon Vivant (14) -> enjoys the good things in life
Bristetout (10) -> breaks everything
Brizefer (30) -> breaks everything (iron)
Brulevillage (11) -> burns village
Boit sans Soif (5) -> drinks without thirst
Bouteille (2) -> bottle
Brisemenage (2) -> home-breaker
Brulemaison (2) -> burns house
Cinq Franc (1) -> five francs
Coeur ardent (1) -> flaming heart
Clefs des Coeurs (2) -> keys to the hearts
Cupidon (3) -> cupid
Cur (1) -> priest
And just so Dick Miale doesn’t feel left out…in the company of the 2nd Grenadiers of the Royal-Italian Battalion in 1763, we find that Antonio Risso and Georges Vanetti, both had the “nom de guerre”…”Colosso” (both measured 5′, 8″). In general, the names of this company, ressembles very much those of the French soldiers, with “noms de guerre” like Bonvino, Il Terrible, La Vigna, Belamose, Senza Quartier and, of course, Viva l’amore.