Of all the things you have to learn in French, names seem like one of the easiest. If you’re familiar with names in Western culture, you should be fine, right?
That’s mostly correct, but when it comes to names in French, there are a few things that might surprise you – and some rules you should know.
French name vocabulary
Before we get into names in French, let’s get familiar with some common name-related vocabulary.
I’ll use famous (and in my opinion, delightfully cheesy) French ‘60’s and 70’s pop singer Claude François to help us out.
- un nom – a general word for name, but can specifically refer to a last name (surname). Ex: Le nom de ce chanteur est Claude François.
- un prénom – a first name. Note that on some forms, you may see this word pluralized – in this case, it’s asking for your first and middle name(s). Ex: Son prénom est Claude.
- un deuxième prénom – a middle name. Note that many French people have more than one middle name, so you could also see the phrase troisième prénom or quatrième prénom! Ex: Son deuxième prénom est Antoine et son troisième prénom est Marie.
- un nom de famille – a last name (family name/surname). Sometimes this is shortened to nom. Ex: Son nom de famille est François.
- le nom d’usage – preferred name (a name one goes by). Ex: Son nom d’usage est Claude François.
- le nom de jeune fille – maiden name. Note that in France, a woman isn’t required to change her name if she gets married.
- le nom d’épouse – married name (for women). Note that in France, a woman is not required to change her last name when she gets married. Also note that some people find this term outdated and will substitute nom d’usage, since the woman has chosen (or not) to use her spouse’s name.
- un surnom/un sobriquet – a nickname (funny name not related to your actual name).
- un diminutif – (In this context) a shortened form of one’s first name. Ex: Le célèbre diminutif de Claude François est CloClo.
- un pseudonyme – an alias, pen name, fake name, or in some cases, a handle (like an old chatroom name online). In the latter case, it’s often shortened to pseudo.
- s’appeler – to call oneself/to be named. Ex: Je m’appelle Alysa, comment tu t’appelles-tu ? (My name is Alysa. What’s your name?) / Il s’appelle Claude François. (His name is Claude François.)
Now that we’ve got those important words down, let’s look at how French names work.
How French first names are formed
Most French names have roots in Latin, Greek, or centuries-old European history.
As in many languages, French names often have a masculine and feminine version. In general, male names in France are the root, and the female version has a feminine suffix. These include -ie, -ine, -que, -elle, -ette, and -anne,
For instance, a boy could be named Martin and a girl could be named Martine. Or a boy might be named Jules and a girl could be named Julie, or Antoine and Antoinette.
You may come across a traditionally female name, Marie, in a man’s name. This was done to honor the Virgin Mary. It’s a pretty old-fashioned custom, so you may not see it in more recent French names.
There are a few traditional French names that are unisex. These prénoms mixtes include Dominique, Maxime (although this name is most often masculine), and the common diminutif Alex.
French first name rules
French first names may seem pretty straightforward so far, but for people from certain other cultures – very much including my fellow Anglo-Saxons – they’re kind of hardcore.
In most Anglophone cultures, we tend to be pretty relaxed when it comes to first names. A parent can call their child just about anything. There are very few restrictions and rules, as long as they avoid blatant controversy or something that’s impossible to write.
But the French are a lot stricter when it comes to first names. In 1803, Napoleon Bonaparte signed a law, known as la loi du 11 Germinal, an XI (The Law of April 1, 1803 by our modern, non-Revolutionary calendar), which declared that French children’s names could only be chosen from an approved list of saints’ names or from antiquity or classical literature.
Despite revolutions and dramatic changes in ideas, the Germinal law stayed in place in France for nearly two hundred years! It was only abolished in 1993 – but it wasn’t replaced by total freedom.
Today, French parents have more leeway when naming their children. For instance, they can choose foreign names or pop culture-inspired ones. But all names have to be approved by government officials, and there is an explicit understanding that a child’s name can’t be controversial or likely to cause them embarrassment.
So that’s why you won’t see a French kid named Pilot Inspektor or Mini Cooper (a rejected first name one couple of French Anglophiles submitted for their child). But the law can sometimes seem a bit too arbitrary.
For instance, some French children are named Cerise (Cherry) or Prune (Plum), but as this fun article about rejected French names explains, officials draw the line at Fraise (Strawberry), since this particular fruit is a part of idiomatic phrases like ramener sa fraise (to butt in/show up) that could be used to tease the child.
(Of course, most of us know that no matter what your first name, if someone wants to tease or bully you, they’ll probably find a way to do it….)
Another rejected name the article mentions is Joyeux (Happy). This actually could be a name that could cause mockery – imagine if Joyeux is a grouchy person in general or is just having a bad day. But in this case, the government rejected the name because it was “too whimsical”.
So, if you’re planning to have a child in France, be aware that you may not be able to name them anything you want!
The most common French first names
Here are the ten most common first names for men and women in France.
Keep in mind that unlike many lists of most popular first names, this one doesn’t just cover baby names (we’ll get to those later on), but rather the names of the entire population, from the very young to the very old.
This means that some of these names were popular in older generations but may seem a bit outdated today. Interestingly, this includes Monique, a first name that many Anglophones consider sexy.
The most common French men’s names
The most common French women’s names:
The most popular French baby names
The previous lists of common French first names were based on the entirety of the current French population. But what are the first names that have been chosen for the latest generation of French people?
According to Parent magazine, the ten most common French baby names in 2019 (the most recent year with information available) were:
The most common French girls names
The most common French boys names
As you can see, French baby names today are a mix of traditional and more modern or unusual, and there is definitely a global, as well as proudly local influence (notably, Maël is a name from the Breton language, of the Brittany region).
If you’d like to see more French baby names, this site features an extensive list, plus a cool search feature that lets you choose things like a beginning letter or the overall length of a name.
French middle names
If you can’t decide which French name you like best, there’s good news: Many French people have at least three!
That is, in addition to their first name, French people may also have multiple middle names. The usual number is two middle names, which is what my French husband has. But you can add others if there’s a reason for it. For instance, our son has three middle names.
Keep in mind that compound names like Jean-Luc count as a single name, so a French person could have even more French names than you’d expect!
As in many Anglophone cultures, some French people may prefer to go by one of their middle names.
French last names
Most French last names go back centuries, possibly even further. They may find their roots in things like place names and geographical features, or a physical feature, job, or family member’s name.
These are things French last name have in common with many other cultures.
But here are a few specific things to know about French last names:
French last names always begin with a capital letter, and in some situations may be written entirely in capital letters.
Like first and middle names in French, French last names always begin with a capital letter. Some official documents or correspondence (including some written addresses) will ask for or include a last name in all capitals, sometimes also preceding the first name.
For instance, when signing something, you might see a pre-typed statement such as Je soussigné, Jean DUPONT,…. (I, the undersigned, Jean Dupont), or even Je soussigné DUPONT Jean….
But in everyday use, the last name always comes last.
Although it’s common, married French women aren’t required to change their last name to their husband’s.
French children can take the name of their father, mother, or both parents.
Until 2005, French children were required to take the last name of their father. If the father was unknown, they could take their mother’s last name. Fortunately, today all families have the choice and can also hyphenate their child’s last name.
In many cases, de/du/de la in a French last name is a sign of nobility.
In the past, most French nobles’ and aristocrats’ family names included de – “of”, referring to the land they owned or to their famous family.
For instance, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa, one of my favorite French nobles, has a last name that refers to the different lands and family groups his ancestors came from.
Some noble or aristocratic names are even longer, while others were shorter. But like Henri, who usually went by the (relatively) shorter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, many other French people of this social class kept it simple in everyday life. For instance, Gilbert du Motier de La Fayette was often referred to, simply, as La Fayette.
After the many revolutions of the late 18th through the 19th centuries in France, it became somewhat unfashionable or even dangerous to have a noble last name, so in some cases, families changed or modified them. For instance, Toulouse-Lautrec greatly admired the artist Edgar Degas, whose real family name was written “de Gas.” Degas chose to change his name to make it less grandiose.
On the other hand, some French people of yore, perhaps out of ambition or just a high opinion of themselves, did the opposite, adding a “de” where there never was one before. The writer Honoré de Balzac is an example of someone who did this.
That said, a de/du/de la in a French last name doesn’t necessarily mean a person has noble or aristocratic blood. Some non-noble French names may include a de or du because they refer to geography. Dubois (“Of/From the forest”), one of the most common French last names, is an example of this.
The most common French last names
Here are the ten most common last names in France today:
You can find a list of the 200 most popular last names currently in use in France thanks to this very interesting Wikipedia article.
French nicknames and shortened names
Of all the specific things about French names, the one that I’ve personally found the most surprising is the way French people shorten names.
Although there are always exceptions, as a general rule French people will play upon the first syllable or first syllable plus the vowel that follows it to create a shortened version of a name.
So you may see something like Alex for Alexandre, Alexandra, Alexie, and so on. Or you might see something like Benji for Benjamin.
On the other hand, it seems like the French don’t generally like to make names super-short. For instance, while the shortened name (diminutif) Tom exists in French, it’s not as common as it is in English. Sometimes, I’ve even seen “shortened” versions of a name that simply change the last letter(s). For example, my neighbor’s name is Marcus but everyone calls him Marco.
Unlike some cultures, the French don’t tend to call people by letters. For instance, you might see Jean-Claude shortened to J.-C. in writing, but you probably wouldn’t hear Jean-Claude’s friends say the letters of his name aloud.
As a native anglophone, I generally find the French way of “shortening” names closer to aesthetics and wordplay rather than practicality. For instance, an American would probably call my French friend Jean-François “J.F.” or “Jean”, but here we call him “Jeff”, from the beginning sounds of each name.
French shortened names and nicknames will also sometimes repeat the first syllable of a name. This is typically done if the name starts with a consonant or common sound, followed by a vowel. You can see a famous example of this in our vocabulary list: Claude François is fondly referred to as “CloClo”, which is the first sound of his name, repeated.
Another example is that Julien, Jules, Julie, or any other Jul- name might be shortened to Juju.
This type of shortened name tends to be a bit cute and used for young people; I don’t know of many adult Frenchmen who’d go by “Juju”.
But this idea, it turns out, is tied to one of the bases for creating a shortened or nickname version of a first name in French. According to this very thorough, fascinating source on French diminutifs, many French shortened names and nicknames mimic the way a young child would try to pronounce the longer version of the name.
That said, as many French parenting and name-related websites point out, it’s becoming more common to use a shortened or nickname form as a full name. For instance, on our list of the most popular French baby names, Léo is a name unto itself, whereas it used to be better known as the short form of names like Léonard or Léonardo. Several other names on the list, including Lina and Léa, also started out as shortened forms of longer names.
Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find a single source that outlines all the rules of shortening names in French. In addition to what I’ve written here, the best way to get to know them is to check out lists like this one (bearing in mind that not all of these are extremely common).
You can also get more familiar with French nicknames and shortened names – as well as French names in general – by watching, reading, and listening to French movies, TV shows, books, and podcasts.
If you want to find a way to make a shortened or nickname version of your own name in French, you can do an online search like “diminutif [your name – ideally in a French version]” and see what comes up.
Remember that not everyone uses or likes nicknames or shortened names, and not all shortened names are well-known or instinctive, even for native French speakers.
Should you use shortened French names or nicknames?
Names are a very personal thing, even in a country where they’re somewhat regulated. So it’s not a good idea to refer to someone by a nickname or a shortened version of their name, unless that person specifically asks you to, or if you see that he or she is referred to that way by everyone else.
Interestingly, French Together founder Benjamin Houy finds that this rule may not be the same everywhere you go. In the UK, where he lives, his name is often shortened to “Ben”, even by strangers. This is a sign of friendliness, but as a French person, he finds it a bit presumptuous. As an American, I’d have to agree.
So, as a general rule, when in France, remember to try to call someone the name they’d like to be called, whether that’s a full, compound name like Marie-Therese or a fun nickname or diminutif like JoJo.
Why some names are celebrated in France
This is a custom tied to Catholic saint feast days and the tradition of naming French people based on the saints.
France is an officially secular country and most French people aren’t practicing Catholics, but its strong historical ties to Catholicism remain in the culture, sometimes in strange ways. Today, you may get a promotional desk calendar from a business or your postal worker with the saints’ feast days (fêtes) marked. This is because it’s become a custom in France to wish a bonne fête to the people you know who have that day’s saint’s name, even if they’re not religious.
Obviously, this means that not everyone in France will have a day on the calendar, since most names that are modern, foreign, literary, or ancient aren’t included.
Luckily, that’s not really a big deal. Although some very traditional French families may have a small celebration on their family member’s saint day – for instance, serving a cake for dessert – it’s not a major celebration. Many French people don’t do anything at all on someone’s “name day”, or will just wish them a “Bonne fête” in passing.
This also means that you don’t have to worry if you don’t realize it’s a French friend or colleague’s name day – as a foreigner, they probably aren’t expecting that you’d know, and it’s not anything at all like forgetting their birthday.
Where can I find more French names?
If you like the sound of French names, there are lots of resources that feature lists of names.
One site that’s really impressed me by including an extensive list of French names as well as information like statistics and information about their meaning and origin, is TonPrenom.com.
You can find many others by doing an online search for “French names” or “prénoms français”.
Do you have a favorite French name (or names)? Feel free to share it in the comments!