What is a Dit Name?

Gustave Eiffel, best known as the architect of the Eiffel Tower, came from a family who adopted the name Eiffel as a dit name for the Eifel mountains in Germany from which their ancestors had come.
Gustave Eiffel, best known as the architect of the Eiffel Tower, was originally born Alexandre Gustave Bonickhausen dit Eiffel, before officially changing his surname to just Eiffel in 1880. Archives départementales de la Côte-d'Or

A dit name is essentially an alias, or alternate name, tacked on to a family name or surname. Dit (pronounced "dee") is a French form of the word dire, which means "to say," and in the case of dit names is translated loosely as "that is to say," or "called." Therefore, the first name is the family's original surname, passed down to them by an ancestor, while the "dit" name is the name the person/family is actually "called" or known as.

 

Dit names are found primarily in New France (French-Canada, Louisiana, etc.), France, and sometimes Scotland. They are used by families, not specific individuals, and are usually passed down to future generations, either in place of the original surname, or in addition to it. After several generations, many families eventually settled on one surname or the other, although it isn't uncommon to see some siblings within the same family using the original surname, while others carried on the dit name. The use of dit names slowed dramatically during the mid- to late-1800s, although they could still be found used by some families into the early twentieth century.

Why a dit name?

Dit names were often adopted by families to distinguish them from another branch of the same family. The specific dit name may also have been chosen for many of the same reasons as the original surname - as a nickname based on trade or physical characteristics, or to identify the ancestral place of origin (e.g. Andre Jarret de Beauregard, where Beauregard refers to the ancestral home in the French province of Dauphine).

The mother's surname, or even the father's first name, may also have been adopted as a dit name.

Interestingly, many dit names derived from military service, where early French military rules required a nom de guerre, or war name, for all regular soldiers. This practice was a precursor to identification numbers, allowing soldiers to be identified collectively by their given name, their family name, and their nom de guerre.

Example of a Dit Name

Gustave Eiffel, architect of the Eiffel Tower, was born Alexandre Gustave Bonickhausen dit Eiffel in Dijon, France, on 15 December 1832. He was a descendant of Jean-René Bönickhausen, who emigrated to France from the German town of Marmagen in the early 18th century. The dit name Eiffel was adopted by descendants of Jean-René for the Eifel mountain region of Germany from which he had come. Gustave formally changed his name to Eiffel in 1880.

How You Might See Dit Names Recorded

A dit name can be legally used to replace the family's original surname. Sometimes the two surnames may be linked as one family name, or you may find families who use the two surnames interchangeably. Thus, you may find an individual's name recorded with a dit name, or under either just the original surname or just the dit name. Dit names may also be found reversed with the original surname, or as hyphenated surnames.

Hudon dit BeaulieuHudon-Beaulieu
Beaulieu dit HudonBeaulieu-Hudon
Hudon BeaulieuHudon
Beaulieu HudonBeaulieu

How to Record a Dit Name in Your Family Tree

When recording a dit name in your family tree, it is generally standard practice to record it in its most common form - e.g. Hudon dit Beaulieu.

A standardized list of dit names with their common variants can be found in Rene Jette's Répertoire des Noms de Famille du Québec" des Origines à 1825 and Msgr Cyprien Tanguay's Dictionnaire genealogique des familles canadiennes (Volume 7). Another extensive source is The dit Name: French Canadian Surnames, Aliases, Adulterations, and Anglicizations by Robert J. Quentin. The American-French Genealogical Society also has an extensive online list of French-Canadian surnames, including variants, dit names, and Anglicizations. When the name is not found in one of the above sources, you can use a phone book (Québec City or Montréal) to find the most common form or, even better, just record it in the form most often used by your ancestors.