Surnames: origin, etymology, transmission, popularity


But where does your last name come from? INSEE lists nearly 1.3 million different surnames in France, one in two people with a very rare surname and eight out of ten people with a rare surname. An estimate that should actually be corrected downwards because many of these names are of foreign origin (there were fewer than 600,000 at the end of the last century), but also because this count sticks to the spelling , while many names are actually just a variant of another name. Thus Dupond, Dupont, de Dupont or Marionnaud, Marionneau, Marioneau and Marillonneau are only variants of one and the same name originally. In fact, there should hardly be more than 350,000 really different French surnames in France.

Even Asterix didn’t have a last name. Indeed, no Gaul had a surname. Throughout the first millennium and even at the beginning of the second, our ancestors had only a Christian name: the equivalent of our current first name. According to the Genealogy Guide website, until the 11th century, people only had a baptismal name. According to the specialized site, it was only in the 12th century that “the population explosion forced populations to give nicknames to individuals in order to avoid confusion”.

Surnames have several historical origins and most often come from:

Surnames are also sometimes derived from Christian names:

When it comes to surnames derived from baptismal names, surnames can have several origins:

Some surnames are matronyms since they are transposed to the feminine, such as “Mariotte, Bouchère”.

In the 17th century, François 1er (ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts) imposed the registration of baptisms and surnames for Catholics. This civil status register is kept by the clergy, present throughout the kingdom. It will be necessary to wait for the French Revolution so that the names of all citizens are registered in the registers of civil status without distinction of confession. Birth registration is then entrusted to the state. The law of 6 Fructidor, Year II confirms the principle of immutability of the patronymic name.

However, the spelling of these surnames can still vary and it will be necessary to wait until 1870 and the appearance of family booklets grouping, within the same document, all the information disseminated until then in several parish registers or civil status. , to stabilize things. Quite recently, a new bill, supported by Eric Dupont-Moretti, envisages the transformation of certain mechanisms relating to the change of surname.

A new bill, supported by the Minister of Justice among others, was presented to the National Assembly by Patrick Vignal (La République en Marche), informs Le Figaro. The LREM deputy for Hérault is indeed pleading for a significant change in civil status, considering the possibility for everyone to change their surname using a simple CERFA form, completed from their town hall. It would then be up to each Frenchman to “choose his surname once in his life”, underlined Éric Dupont-Moretti.

If the Keeper of the Seals is in favor of this kind of transformation, it is because the requests for a change of surname are increasing from year to year. Thus, 3,567 requests were communicated to the Chancellery in 2021. In 2018, the organization identified “only” 2,774.

Over the past twenty years, genealogy has experienced considerable growth, while dematerialization and access to digital resources facilitate the research process of our ancestors and allow the French to discover the origin and evolution of their own family name. family.

Is your surname one of the most common in France? According to, between 1891 and 1990, the 10 most common surnames in France were:

Among the surnames derived from nicknames given to the ancestors of those who now bear them, there are several types of nicknames that had been given:

To develop its rankings, running from 1891 to 1990, the site is based on the file of birth towns of the National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies (INSEE). It is even possible to search by region or department to find out in which region your surname is most common. Indeed, “this patronymic file records for each municipality the number of births by surname”.

In 1973, a genealogist, Michel Tesnière, published a study proving that many surnames would die out and that we would all end up calling ourselves “Martin, Bernard, Thomas, etc.” under the pretext that “all closed bodies eventually die out” and that rare names would all disappear one by one over marriages and due to a low birth rate. A theory which has already proven to be false, in particular because of immigration, since 520,000 different surnames existed in France in 1890, whereas today there are 1,300,000 according to INSEE.

This is much more diversity than for names in some countries, such as China! In Vietnam and China, for example, for hundreds of years, families traditionally took the same name as the reigning dynasty in their region. As a result, half of the population of Vietnam bears the name “N’Guyen”!