Life Style

“Family names have not always been hereditary”

La Croix: Since when do we use family names in France?

Marie-Odile Mergnac: The Romans already had surnames, but these had disappeared for a thousand years when the current names were formed, around the 12th century.e and XIIIe centuries. They were created by the population, without the intervention of the legislator, because there were more and more homonyms. Families enjoyed giving their children holy names and had stopped creating new names, as did the Germanic tribes.

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The variety of first names has therefore diminished, while the population has increased. And nicknames appeared to distinguish people. They can be classified into four categories: the nickname evoking the first name of the father (Jean Martin), the profession (Jean Boulanger), the place of origin or of the dwelling (Jean Dupont) and the physical or moral characteristics (Jean Petit ). These nicknames given by neighbors were not always tender. Long individual, therefore changing with each generation, they gradually became hereditary and gave rise to family names.

The surname therefore first had a practical function …

M.-OM: Yes, to differentiate people. But we ended up giving it greater importance, making it a kind of family line marker: we all have four grandparents and eight great-grandparents, but the line of our name is the most significant.

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In the past, we used to say to young couples that “A boy to pass on the name”. At the same time, the family name has taken on a strong emotional value because it anchors the wearer in a family network, a kinship, a story …

Is it true that France has a particularly high number of surnames?

M.-OM: Yes. In France, names were forged relatively early, at times when there were many local languages ​​and therefore different names to express the same idea. Thus, the blacksmith gave birth to more than 600 surnames.

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The numerical importance of names in France is also linked to the fact that few of them (less than 40%) are first names, the variety of which is more limited. In Spain or the Scandinavian countries, for example, a much larger proportion of surnames come from first names and homonyms are particularly numerous.

Can our last name influence us?

M.-OM: Surely. There are a lot of anecdotes about it. In the Southwest, for example, there is a high number of nurses called Piquemal! I am also thinking of a vulcanologist called Cheminée or of a Socialist deputy whose last name is Lagauche. We also note that all those who have names that are difficult to bear do not break through under that name but under a pseudonym. Since the First Empire, the legislator has moreover authorized in certain particular cases a modification of the name.


Legislation in Europe

In France, the parents can give the name of the father, that of the mother or both appended in the desired order and within the limit of one name each. In the absence of a joint declaration mentioning the choice of the name, the child will bear that of the father. And if the parents disagree, he will take the two names next to each other in alphabetical order. The name chosen for the eldest sibling will apply to the cadets. The child having inherited a double name will have to choose which one to transmit to his descendants.

UK, the parents can transmit indifferently the name of the father or the mother but also any other name of their choice.

In Belgium, parents can give the father’s name, mother’s name, or a name made up of both, in any order.

Germany, Finland and Sweden allow spouses to transmit the name of the father or the mother but not both. Note that in Germany a child born out of wedlock takes the mother’s name.

In Spain, the transmission of the double name is old. Until 2010, the father’s name was necessarily the first, which eliminated the maternal name in the next generation. Since then, parents can choose the order.

Portugal stands out for the breadth of choice. The child can be assigned up to four surnames among those of parents, grandparents and great-grandparents.

Italy stands out for its patriarchal tradition: only the name of the father can be transmitted.


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