Wednesday, May 21, 2014

World-Wide Wednesday: French Baby Names

Featured French Names:
Olivier & Colette
This month's edition of World-Wide Wednesday will focus on French baby names.  The French were originally very limited in what names they could use for a child because France was very strict as far as which names were and were not allowed.

Traditionally, babies were only allowed to be named after Roman Catholic saints. Sometimes a child acquired the name of the saint who's National Saint Day fell on the day they were born. Today, that practice is not commonly used anymore, however most French people are still given the name of a saint or a version of a name of a saint. The Saint's Day associated with their name is then celebrated throughout their life as a second birthday.

The most common saint names that were used include Jacques (James), Jean (John), Michel (Michael), Pierre (Peter), or Jean-Baptiste (John the Baptist) for males; and Marie (Mary), Jeanne (Jane), Marguerite (Margaret), Françoise (Frances), or Élisabeth (Elizabeth) for females. Often these names would be hyphenated such as Jean-Pierre or Marie-Claude. This is still a popular naming style today.

When 1966 came around, the government decided to give parents a bit more freedom by allowing mythological names as well as some regional or foreign names. It wasn't until 1993 that parents gained even more freedom. In that year, most restrictions were lifted as long as the name was not deemed detrimental to the child's future. The birth registrar has the ultimate say and can refuse to allow a name that is thought to be harmful. If a name is rejected, the parents may be sent to a local court but this tends to be a rare occurrence.

Typically in the past, the French tended to have one given name that they use, (hyphenated names are considered one name) and a second and third name that are hardly mentioned beyond official documents. These latter names tend to honor godparents or grandparents and may be considered "out of fashion" for those reasons. These second and third names are similar to the Anglo-Saxon "middle name" that is rarely known or used. However, a French person may choose to be called by one of these more "hidden" names rather than the first one listed on the birth certificate. Nowadays, using more than one name on a daily basis is rather out of fashion, but they still tend to have multiple middle names.

Nearly all traditional given names are gender-specific. There are some cases where a name may appear unisex but actually be pronounced or spelled slightly differently for each gender such as Frederic (M) and Frederique (F).  When it comes to compound or hyphenated names, sometimes the second name can be that of the opposite gender; for example, a girl named Marie-George or a boy named Jean-Marie. It is the first name that denotes the gender.

As a result of the lifting of the baby naming restrictions, names that are being given today are drastically different than the names used even 40+ years ago.

For French-Canadians, there was a typical name structure in place up until the mid-1900s. Children were generally given three names. The first denoted the gender of the child, like Marie or Joseph. The second name was that of a godparent of the same gender. The third name is what the child was actually called by. It was even common for every sibling to receive the same sex appropriate first name, which brought about families whose children looked like this: Marie-Louise, Marie-Antoinette, Jean-Pierre and Jean-Paul. They would then either go by the second half of the hyphenated name or by a third name.

Baptism records often listed only the child's first name and sometimes the second name. The third was virtually ignored. However, the family bible would list all of the names. Records sometimes got confusing, especially when the children were all given the same first names. This would lead to plenty of mistaken identities in genealogical records. Occasionally there was also a practice up until the 1930s in which the name of a deceased child would be reused again for the next child. That no longer happens but it definitely led to even more confusion on official records.

As of 2011, popular baby names in France were much different than those in America. One source even mentioned that using an "American" name is not fashionable and can sometimes indicate a lower class family. This is because the French overused "American" names in the 1990s so they currently shy away from our trends. But they definitely have their own. If the name is not French in origin, it may be Italian, Greek, Spanish or Irish instead, which are all being commonly used these days. There is plenty of debate about whether a foreign name could hurt the child's future job prospects since the country had very limited choices for so long. It is feared that if a name is too unique, the child may not fare well.

Recent trends have included using shorter names like Lucas and Clara rather than using long ones like Alexandre or Nathalie. Girls are increasingly being given names that end with -a rather than the more usual -e endings.  Boys are seeing more names ending in -o.

       Top Names in France for 2013:

For a much longer list of names that are used in France, check out the top names from 2011. It is a bit older but it is more complete than the above.  Which name on the list is your favorite?

[Note: I know very basic French but I've never been to France or Quebec or any other French-speaking country. If I have misinterpreted any information, please let me know!]

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