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By Kimberly Powell Coming from the medieval French word 'surnom' translating as "above-or-over name," surnames or descriptive names trace their use in France back to 11th century, when it first became necessary to add a second name to distinguish between individuals with the same given name.
They may also describe the individual's specific location within a village or town, such as Michel Léglise (, who lived next to the church.
The prefixes "de," "des," "du," and "le" which translate as "of" may also be found used in geographical French surnames.
In some areas of France, a second surname may have been adopted in order to distinguish between different branches of the same family, especially when the families remained in the same town for generations.
The majority of French patronymic and matronymic surnames have no identifying prefix, however, being direct derivations of the parent's given name, such as August Landry, for "August, son of Landri," or Tomas Robert, for "Tomas, son of Robert."Also very common among French surnames, occupational last names are based on the person’s job or trade, such as Pierre Boulanger [baker], or "Pierre, the baker." Several common occupations found prevalently as French surnames include Berger ().
Based on a unique quality of the individual, descriptive French surnames often developed from nicknames or pet names, such as Jacques Legrand, for Jacques, "the big."Other common examples include Petit ().
Geographical or habitational French surnames are based on a person’s residence, often a former residence (e.g.
Yvonne Marseille - Yvonne from the village of Marseille).
The mother's name was usually used only when the father's name was unknown.
Patronymic and matronymic surnames in France were formed in several different ways.
The typical form of attaching a prefix or suffix that means "son of" (e.g.
Examples include Jean de Gaulle, meaning "John, son of Gaulle," or Tomas Fitz Robert, or "Tomas, son of Robert." Suffixes meaning "little son of" (-eau, -elet, -elin, elle, elet, etc.) may have also been used.