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 Origin Of French Names In the 18th Century 
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Joined: Sat Mar 07, 2009 4:12 am
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Post Origin Of French Names In the 18th Century
I've always wondered about the origin of French names in the 18th cenury. It seemed that the vast majority of names had a 'de' or a 'du' preceeding the surname. I assumed that it was an indicator of their origin; the Princess de Lamballe or her husband were from a place called Lamballe. I had trouble with Mme. de la Tour du Pin. And where was the 'de' in Charlotte Corday? Today I was determined to find out. It involves 'Particules' explained below:

Some French last names include the word de ("of") or du (contraction for de and le = "of the"). This is known as a particule. A particule 'de' should not be alphabetized in name lists, whereas a particule 'du' should be because it results from the contraction of an article. The particule generally indicates some land or feudal origin, but this is not always the case. The name de Gaulle, for example, is not a traditional French name with a particule, but a Flemish name evolved from a form of "De Walle" meaning "the wall".

A popular misconception is that a particule always indicates membership of the nobility. Almost all nobility titles are of the form <title> <particle> <name of the land>: for instance, Louis, duc d'Orléans ("Louis, duke of Orléans"), or simply Louis d'Orléans. However, many non-noble people also have particules in their names, simply because they indicate some geographic origin or property. An example from current political life is Dominique de Villepin. Former president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing's father had his surname legally changed from "Giscard" to "Giscard d'Estaing" in 1922, claiming the name of a family line extinct since the French Revolution.

Adding a particule was one way for people of non-noble origins to pretend they were nobles. In the 19th century wealthy laymen buying nobility titles were derisively called Monsieur de Puispeu, a pun on depuis peu meaning "since recently". Similarly, during the French Revolution, when being associated with the nobility was unfashionable and even risky, some people dropped the de from their name, or omitted the mention of their feudal titles.

In some cases, names with particules are made of a normal family name and the name of an estate (or even of several estates). Thus, Dominique de Villepin is Dominique Galouzeau de Villepin; Hélie de Saint Marc is Hélie Denoix de Saint Marc (in both cases, omitting second or other given names). As in these examples, most people with such long family names shorten their name for common use by keeping only the first estate name (such as Viscount Philippe Le Jolis de Villiers de Saintignon, assiming in everyday life the name of Philippe de Villiers) or, in some cases, only the family name. Whether the family name or the estate name is used for the shortened form depends on a variety of factors: how people feel bearing a particule (people may for instance dislike the connotations of nobility that the particule entails; on the other hand, they may enjoy the impression of nobility), tradition, etc. For instance, one never refers to Valéry Giscard d'Estaing as "d'Estaing", probably because his particule is a recent addition to the family surname by his father. On the contrary, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing is often simply referred to in the press as Giscard.

Traditionally, the particule 'de' is omitted when citing the name of a person without a preceding given name, title (baron, duc etc.), job description (général, colonel, etc.) or polite address (monsieur, madame, mademoiselle). Thus, one would say Monsieur de la Vieuville, but if calling him familiarily by his last name only, La Vieuville (note the initial capital letter); the same applies for Gérard de la Martinière, who would be called La Martinière. Similarly, Philippe de Villiers talks about the votes he receives as le vote Villiers. However, this usage is now losing ground to a more egalitarian treatment of surnames; it is, for instance, commonplace to hear people talking of De Villiers.

Note that English language medial capital spellings such as DeVilliers are never used in France.

Last edited by Artois on Sat Jul 31, 2010 11:21 am, edited 1 time in total.

Thu Jul 29, 2010 4:50 pm
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Joined: Mon Oct 20, 2008 5:32 am
Posts: 294
Post Re: Origin Of French Names In the 18th Century
As a general thing, it's pretty straightforward: the family name comes before the particle, if there is one, and anything after it refers to a fief. Some historical figures, like Mirabeau (the count of Mirabeau) and Beaumarchais (Caron de Beaumarchais), who was not born to his title and whose fief was tiny, are known by their titles, not their family names. Sometimes the names are ambivalent - de Sade was Donatien Alphonse François, marquis de Sade. No one ever gives a family name (it seems unlikely that it was "Francois").
Since fiefs could be sold, one has to be careful in things like genealogy to pay attention to dates and possessions. Different families could successively be lords of the same fief.

When Louis, King of France (his fief), was ostentatiously treated like everyone else, he was called "Louis Capet", though I doubt he ever had occasion to use his family name before the Revolution.

Jim Chevallier
North Hollywood, CA

Thu Jul 29, 2010 8:57 pm

Joined: Sat Apr 09, 2011 6:44 pm
Posts: 13
Post Re: Origin Of French Names In the 18th Century
Louis XVI always disavowed the surname Capet..."That was the name of some of my ancestors,but not my name"...he is purported to have said to the revolutionary court...But the powers that had captured the King and his family had stuck on that family name...

Sun Apr 10, 2011 1:35 pm
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