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Surnames and first names

Family names have been officially recognised in France since 1539.They were originally based on:

  • a place: Monsieur Dubois, Madame Laforêt, Mademoiselle Rivière, Monsieur Montagne

  • physical appearance: Monsieur Legrand, Madame Petit

  • a profession: Pierre Boulanger

  • a family relationship: Jacques Cousin...

Some family names come from first names: M et Mme Marie, Mlle Thomas, Monsieur Richard are among the most common.

There are about 250,000 different family names of which the most frequent are Martin, Bernard, Moreau, Durand, Petit, Dubois.

You can guess that Monsieur Dubois had an ancestor in the Middle Ages who lived near a wood.

A French woman is still legally known by her maiden name, even if she uses her husband’s family name.

A writer, a journalist, an artist kan choose  a nom de plume to sign an article, a book or a work. His passport always mentions his real name and the pseudonym he goes by.

Among writers of children books, Pef has created his pseudonym with the initials of his full name: Pierre Elie Ferrier. In Belgium, Hergé signs the albums Kuifje. His pseudonym comes from the initials of his real name, Georges Rémi, GR which become backwards RG, pronounced Hergé.

First names

France  is a female first name that was very popular in the 1950s.

Marie-France combines two first names into one.

Faire-part de naissance d'Emma Any first name is now officially allowed, so long as it is not ridiculous or prejudicial to the child. The diminutive or nickname, often given to children when they are little, is rarely used except by family or friends.

Guess where I live

Names of towns and villages come from geography or history. Every community is proud to explain to visitors the origin of its name.

With some place names it’s easy to guess what the French call the inhabitants, but with others you might as well give up (“donner sa langue au chat”):

  • If you live in Paris, you are “Parisien”.
  • In Lyon you are “Lyonnais”.
  • In Bordeaux, “Bordelais”.
  • In Lille, “Lillois”.
  • In Evreux, “Ebroïcien”.

Can you add to this list?

There are more than 250 places in France called Saint-Martin! You need to know the name of the département and the postcode to make sure of finding the right address.


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