Whenever a child comes into the world, no matter what society or culture, the act of choosing a name is important. A child’s name not only carries weight legally, but it can also provide a great deal of information about their family and culture as well. Sometimes children are named after parents, grandparents, places, or significant people; or perhaps their middle names are used to preserve a surname for the maternal line. Maybe a second name is given to be used as a nickname instead of the first. When looking at Franco-American or French-Canadian culture, a researcher might be surprised when they open up the family records—they would quickly realize that there are a host of unique conventions when it comes to picking the name of a child.
Without the proper context, one might assume (from baptismal documents) that a surprising number of Franco-American women were named Marie and that most men were similarly named Jean or Joseph. They would be mistaken in thinking these were their primary names, however. This is not to say that these “first” names were never used—they were, and often—but one must consider how these documents were structured. Most French-Canadian and Franco-American birth and baptismal records have four listed names.
The first listed name was generally a gender marker. To show the sex of a child, the name Marie or Joseph was commonly added to the beginning of the child’s official name. This was followed by another informational name, the name of their same-sex Godparent. In the example above, one can see that the child was female and her godmother was named Elizabeth. Usually the third given name was the one that the child would go by, though the second and third names were occasionally interchanged. But following the normal convention, the girl above was most likely called Anne. The final name would be the family surname.
Surnames can be interesting to look at as well because of the “nom dit” tradition. These “dit names” or “said names” are occasional, alternate names given to a person or family that sometimes hold the same legal weight as their other surname. They derived in various ways. Sometimes they stemmed from a significant location, a place the family lived, a particular characteristic, or a nickname given for military service.
A dit name could be added to the existing surname by connecting it with “dit”—such as, Lemay dit Poudrier or sometimes they were even hyphenated like Lemay-Poudrier. Over time the surname and dit name could become interchangeable. The dit name could also eventually replace the surname altogether, which can make researching past relatives difficult for genealogists. There were also occasions in which part of the family adopted the dit name while others in the same family chose not to.
As mentioned above, some names didn’t come from an area or region lived, or a defining characteristic, but particularly from military service. In the French Military, going back at least to the Napoleonic times, soldiers would use a “nom de guerre” or “war name.” These names were used before the implementation of ID numbers. They identified the men and could act as useful pseudonyms during times of duress or perhaps when a soldier might want to distance themselves from their homeland identity.
Whatever the angle of view, the naming conventions in Franco American culture are certainly a unique look into a person’s personal past. Some traditions are fading—nowadays people tend to provide their children with one name instead of three. But many “dit names” are still being passed down. These forms of identification only add to the wealth of information that a person can discover when they take the time to look back into their family’s past.
Do you or your family have any naming stories to share? If so, please feel free to comment below! Thanks for reading!
Thanks for Reading!
This post was written by Emily Meader. It was produced by Rhumb Line Maps and the University of Maine’s Franco-American Program in May 2021. We would like to give a special thanks to the Bicentennial Grant that made this possible.
Writer — Emily Meader
Editors — Ben Meader and Emily Meader
Media Sources — Ancestry.com, PublicDomainPictures.net
— on naming
Powell, Kimberly. “What Is a Dit Name in French-Canadian Genealogy?”
Neaves, Jessica. “What Is a Nom Dit and Why Did My French Canadian Ancestor Have One?” Heritage Discovered, Heritage Discovered, 3 Nov. 2020, www.heritagediscovered.com/blog/nom-dit-why-french-canadian-ancestor-have#section1.
Lagacé, Pierre. “Shared by Luc Lépine.” Our Ancestors, 14 Aug. 2016, steanne.wordpress.com/2016/08/14/shared-by-luc-lepine/.
Schneider, Judy. French Naming Conventions, 1 Jan. 1970, www.catudals.com/2012/10/french-naming-conventions.html.
“French-Canadian ‘Dit’ Names.” The French-Canadian Genealogist, www.tfcg.ca/french-canadian-dit-names.