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As in most countries, French surnames were not used officially until relatively recently. They first arose in the 11th century as a way to distinguish people who lived in the same village, and had the same first name. As such, they were usually descriptive and have evolved over time to the surnames we know today.
There are four origins to the most common surnames in the country, which mirror those of several European countries:
These surnames are the most simple, and logical ways in which people distinguished their neighbors. Using a physical attribute or personality trait of a person as a nickname was a common practice, and has resulted in surnames such as Legrand (the tall one), Petit (small), and Blanc (white).
These surnames describe the job a person had in their communities. For example, if the town’s baker had the same first name as someone else, people would call him Jacques Fournier to distinguish him from another Jacques. This tendency has given way to names such as Chevalier (knight), an Bouvier (drover).
Another way to distinguish people was through their location in town, which was not difficult to establish since Medieval towns were quite small. If someone lived, let’s say, next to the church, they would be called L’église (the church), which has now transformed into Léglise. Other such names that are very common nowadays are Dupont (of the bridge), Dubois (of the woods), and Dupuis (of the well).
The fourth, and most common, type of surname comes from a person’s father. This is the reason why so many French surnames, such as Martin, Thomas, and Robert are also first names. These surnames were given to people whose father had them as a first name, so Jacques Thomas would be Jacques, the son of Thomas. These names are often accompanied by prefixes and suffixes like De and au (Depaul, Rousseau) that mean “son of”.
Considering all these origins can give you insight into why some surnames are so popular. In case you’re wondering, the ten most common French surnames are: Martin, Bernard, Dubois, Thomas, Robert, Richard, Petit, Durand, Leroy, and Moreau.
In addition, French surnames have been influenced by its culturally diverse history, and because of the Germanic invasions, several French names, like Bernard, descend from German ones.
Anyone interested in tracing their French genealogy and roots can consult the several archival records available in France. Of course, the more information a person has on his or her family, the better the chances of tracing them. Records are usually found at the local level: In the Town Hall Archives, Municipal Archives, Departmental Archives, and the National Archives. If you are able to trace your ancestors to the city or municipality they lived in, there is a big possibility that here will be vast records on them. If you’re looking for information that is more than a hundred years old, it will be in the National Archives. You can also look in Parish records, cemeteries, and military records.