French Surname Meanings and Origins

Discovering Your French Heritage

Explore the meanings and origins of French surnames handed down by long ago ancestors.

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Coming from the medieval French word "surnom," which translates as "above-or-over name," descriptive surnames names trace their use in France back to 11th century when it first became necessary to add a second name to distinguish between individuals with the same given name. Even so, the use of surnames did not become common for several centuries.

Patronymic & Matronymic Surnames

Based on a parent’s name, patronyms and matronyms are the most common method by which French last names were constructed. Patronymic surnames are based on the father's name and matronymic surnames on the mother's name. The mother's name was usually used only when the father's name was unknown.

Patronymic and matronymic surnames in France were formed in several different ways. The majority of French patronymic and matronymic surnames have no identifying prefix and are direct derivations of the parent's given name, such as August Landry, for "August, son of Landri," or Tomas Robert, for "Tomas, son of Robert." The typical format of attaching a prefix or suffix meaning "son of" (e.g., de, des, du, lu, or the Norman fitz) to a given name was less common in France than in many European countries, although still prevalent. Examples include Jean de Gaulle, meaning "John, son of Gaulle," or Tomas FitzRobert, or "Tomas, son of Robert." Suffixes meaning "little son of" (-eau, -elet, -elin, -elle, -elet, and so forth) were also used.

Occupational Surnames

Also very common among French surnames, occupational last names are based on the person’s job or trade, such as Pierre Boulanger or "Pierre, the baker." Several common occupations found prevalently as French surnames include Caron (cartwright), Fabron (blacksmith), and Pelletier (fur trader).

Descriptive Surnames

Based on a unique quality of the individual, descriptive French surnames were often developed from nicknames or pet names, such as Jacques Legrand, for Jacques, "the Big." Other common examples include Petit (small) and LeBlanc (blonde hair or fair complexion).

Geographical Surnames

Geographical or habitational French surnames are based on a person’s residence, often a former residence (for example, Yvonne Marseille means Yvonne from the village of Marseille). They may also describe the individual's specific location within a village or town, such as Michel Léglise, who lived next to the church. The prefixes "de," "des," "du," and "le" (which translate to "of") are also used in French geographical surnames. 

Alias Surnames or Dit Names

In some areas of France, a second surname may have been adopted to distinguish between different branches of the same family, especially when the families remained in the same town for generations. These alias surnames can often be found preceded by the word "dit." Sometimes an individual even adopted the dit name as the family name and dropped the original surname. This practice was most common in France among soldiers and sailors.

French Names With Germanic Origins

As so many French surnames are derived from first names, it's important to know that many common French first names have Germanic origins. However, these names became part of French culture as a result of German invasions, so having a name with Germanic origins does not necessarily mean you have German ancestors.

Official Name Changes in France

Beginning in 1474, those who wished to change their names were required to get permission from the King. (These official name changes can be found indexed in "L' Archiviste Jérôme. Dictionnaire des changements de noms de 1803–1956" (Dictionary of changed names from 1803 to 1956). Paris: Librairie Francaise, 1974.)

100 Common French Surnames and their Meanings

  1. Abadie (abbey or family chapel)
  2. Alarie (all-powerful)
  3. Allard (noble)
  4. Anouilh (slow worm)
  5. Archambeau (bold, daring)
  6. Arsenault (gun maker, keeper of the arsenal)
  7. Auclair (clear)
  8. Barbeau (a type of fish, fisherman)
  9. Barbier (barber)
  10. Bassett (low, short, or of humble origins)
  11. Baudelaire (small sword, dagger)
  12. Beauregard (beautiful outlook)
  13. Beausoleil (beautiful sun, a sunny place)
  14. Bellamy (beautiful friend)
  15. Berger (shepherd)
  16. Bisset (weaver)
  17. Blanchet (blond, pure)
  18. Bonfils (good son)
  19. Boucher (butcher)
  20. Boulanger (baker)
  21. Brun (dark hair or complexion)
  22. Camus (snub-nosed, shirt-maker)
  23. Carpentier (carpenter)
  24. Carre (square)
  25. Cartier (transporter of goods)
  26. Chapelle (near the chapel)
  27. Charbonnier (who sells or makes charcoal)
  28. Chastain (chestnut tree)
  29. Chatelain (constable, prison warder from the Latin word castellum, meaning “watchtower”)
  30. Chevalier (knight, horseman)
  31. Chevrolet (keeper of goats)
  32. Corbin (crow, little raven)
  33. De la Cour (of the court)
  34. De la Croix (of the cross)
  35. De la Rue (of the street)
  36. Desjardins (from the gardens)
  37. Donadieu/Donnadieu (“given to God,” this name was often bestowed on children who became priests or nuns, or were orphaned with unknown parentage.)
  38. Dubois (by the woods or forest)
  39. Dupont (by the bridge)
  40. Dupuis (by the well)
  41. Durand (enduring)
  42. Escoffier (to dress)
  43. Farrow (ironworker)
  44. Fontaine (well or fountain)
  45. Forestier (keeper of the king’s forest)
  46. Fortier (stronghold/fort or someone who works there)
  47. Fortin (strong)
  48. Fournier (communal baker)
  49. Gagneux (farmer)
  50. Gagnon (guard dog)
  51. Garcon (boy, servant)
  52. Garnier (keeper of the granary)
  53. Guillaume (from William, meaning strength)
  54. Jourdain (one who descends)
  55. Laferriere (near an iron mine)
  56. Lafitte (near the border)
  57. Laflamme (torchbearer)
  58. Laframboise (raspberry)
  59. Lagrange (who lived near a granary)
  60. Lamar (the pool)
  61. Lambert (bright land or lamb herder)
  62. Lane (wool or wool trader)
  63. Langlois (Englishman)
  64. Laval (of the valley)
  65. Lavigne (near the vineyard)
  66. Leclerc (clerk, secretary)
  67. Lefebre (craftsman)
  68. Legrand (large or tall)
  69. Lemaitre (master craftsman)
  70. Lenoir (black, dark)
  71. Leroux (redheaded)
  72. Leroy (the king)
  73. Le Sueur (one who sews, cobbler, shoemaker)
  74. Marchand (merchant)
  75. Martel (blacksmith)
  76. Moreau (dark-skinned)
  77. Moulin (mill or miller)
  78. Petit (small or slender)
  79. Picard (someone from Picard)
  80. Poirier/Poirot (near a pear tree or orchard)
  81. Pomeroy (apple orchard)
  82. Porcher (swineherd).
  83. Proulx (brave, valiant)
  84. Remy (oarsman or cure/remedy)
  85. Richelieu (place of wealth)
  86. Roche (near a rocky hill)
  87. Sartre (tailor, someone who sews clothing)
  88. Sergeant (one who serves)
  89. Serrurier (locksmith)
  90. Simon (one who listens)
  91. Thibaut (brave, bold)
  92. Toussaint (all saints)
  93. Travers (near the bridge or ford)
  94. Vachon (cowherd)
  95. Vaillancourt (low-lying farm)
  96. Vercher (farmland)
  97. Verne (alder tree)
  98. Vieux (old)
  99. Violette (violet)
  100. Voland (one who flies, agile)