Derivation of Jersey Surnames

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Adapted from an article by George Balleine in the Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise, 1940

Surnames began to appear in the 11th Century. Till then everyone had been content with the one name given them at the font. But, when a dozen Jeans lived on the same fief, something had to be done to distinguish one from the other. So gradually and quite haphazardly the custom arose of adding a second name to the Christian name. There was no plan or system about it. A surname at first was merely a nickname given a man by his neighbours. It was at least three hundred years before the process was complete. But by the end of the 14th Century most people in France and England had a surname as well as a font name. These surnames fall into five easily distinguishable groups.

Parents' Christian names

One way of identifying a man was to mention the name of his father. If two Guys were neighbours, they could be distinguished as Guy, fils de Jean, and Guy, fils de Guillaume. In time this would be shortened to Guy Jean and Guy Guillaume, and, when everyone was accustomed to call a man Guy Jean, it was natural to speak of his children as the Jean family. In this way scores of surnames arose. A man's father may have been christened by one of the hero names, Alexandre, a name made fashionable in the Middle Ages by the Roman d'Alexandre, describing the exploits of the Greek conqueror, Allain from the Alan to whom Joseph of Arimathea entrusted the Holy Grail, or Arthur from the knight of the Round Table ; or by the name of a popular Saint, Anthoine from St Antony, Aubin, Clement, Goddard from St Goddard, Archbishop of Rouen, Hubert, Laurens, Leonard, Martin, Michel, Simon, Vincent; or by a name suggested by one of the Church Seasons. A child born at Christmas was often christened Noel. And the father's font name later became the surname of his children.

More surnames belong to this group than is at first apparent. Often a man's name would be shortened by his cronies. Nicolle and Collas are pet names for Nicolas; Hue, Huet, and Huelin for Hugo; Guille and Guillemet for Guillaume; Perree, Perrot and Perriot for Pierre; Drieu for Andrieu, an old French form of Andrew. Robin has nothing to do with the bird, but is short for Robert; nor was Gosset or Gosselin a little goose, but both are forms of Jocelyn.

Sometimes a name is not recognized as a font name, because it has changed its spelling. Anfrey is Humphrey. Aubert, from St Aubert, Bishop of Avranches, is Albert. Benest is the French spelhng of Benedict, the founder of the Benedictine Order. Jehan and Jouanne are old spellings of Jean. The Vulgate, the Bible of the Middle Ages, spelt St Luke's name Lucas. Renault is the French spelling of Reginald, Baudain of Baldwin, Gautier and Vautier of Walter. The last three names were given to scores of mediaeval babies. Charlemagne had a nephew Baudain. Baudain de Beauvais, Baudain Chaudron, and Baudain du Bourg were heroes of the First Crusade.

No less than 16 of Charlemagne's knights were called Gautier. In fact so common was this name that "Gautier et Guillaume" became a proverbial expression for "everybody". If a chronicler tells us that raiders killed Gautier et Guillaume, he means that they slew every Tom, Dick and Harry. And to show that Gautier and Vautier were the same name, on the Roll of the Third Crusade we find:— Vaultier ou Gauthier de Ligne, Vautier ou Gautier de Mauny".

But the main reason why we do not realise how many surnames began life at the font is because as Christian names they have passed out of use. A list of popular font names in the Middle Ages would include:

  • Ahier. In old charters we find, " Robertus filius Aier," " Matheus filius Aye."
  • Anquetil, one of the Norse kettle-names, Thorcytel, Oscytel, Uncytel, etc., referring originally to the sacred kettle of the gods. St Helier's first Jersey miracle was said to be the healing of a cripple called Anquetil.
  • Gervaise, a name borne by two writers who lived about 1200, Gervase of Canterbury and Gervase of Tilbury.
  • Hamon, later spelt Hammond. Hamon Dentatus revolted against William the Conqueror. William, son of Hamon, founded St. Helier's Abbey.
  • Hemery, which is really Aimeri from the Frankish Amalric. Aimeri de Thouars commanded one division at Hastings. Aimeri de Narbonnes is the hero of a famous French epic.
  • Jourdan, the river in which John baptized, was immensely popular as a font name. In the Jersey Assize Roll of 1309 twenty three of the men have Jourdan as their first name.
  • Mauger, later spelt Major, was the Norman form of the Frankish Maethelgaer. Mauger de Carteret fought at Hastings. Mauger, Archbishop of Rouen, excommunicated William the Conqueror.
  • Renoaf is the Norman Ranulf from the Frankish; Regenwulf. Renouf de Briquissant was a leader of the Barons' Revolt against the Conqueror. Ranulf Flambard, Rufus' minister, is called Renouf Flambard by French chroniclers. This is one of a group of wolf names. Just as Regenwulf became Renouf, so Eanwulf became Esnouf, and Oswulf became Ozouf. The last syllable of Surcouf must be wulf, though the first half is uncertain. Even Hacquoil, which in 1331 was spelt Hascouf, and in Latin charters Hasculfus, was the French form of Aescwulf. Bumouf, Amouf, and Ernouf, from Beornwulf and Amwulf, were also once common in Jersey.

Other mediaeval Christian names that became surnames are:

  • Angot, the Norwegian Ansgaut.
  • Anley from Anslech (Anslech of Briqucbec was tutor to Duke Richard of Normandy).
  • Bertram, a Teutonic name meaning Bright Raven.
  • Fahl, Fahia, and Falho, three forms of the German Faike, which became in French, Falle, Falla, and Fallu.
  • Godel, probably from the Teutonic Godbeald.
  • Godfray, a name made popular by Godefroy de Bouillon, leader of the First Crusade.
  • Mesnard, from the German Maegenhardt.
  • Morant, which in Jersey became Mourant.
  • Neel, the French form of Nigel.
  • Ogier from the Danish Holger. Ogier the Dane, one of Charlemagne's knights, is Denmark's national hero.
  • Pepin, the Teutonic Peipo, the name of the famous Mayor of the Palace who made himself King of France. Pipon may be a form of the same name.
  • Remon, the French Raymond, from the Teutonic Ragenmund.
  • Sohier, one of the commonest names in the old French Romances.
  • Syvret, either a French form of Selfrid (Two Selfrids, Bishops of Chichester, are called Sifroi by the Norman Chroniclers) or of the Latin Severiacus.
  • Thoreau, the French for Thorold. Turgis, the French for Thorkil, the name of the Danish Ulysses. A Tourgis was Bishop ofAvranches in 1094- Vibert, the French for Wigbeorht.

Sometimes, perhaps when the father was dead, and the child was brought up by his mother, he was known by his mother's Christian name.

  • Allez, in 1333 spelt Aales, is the Frankish female name Adalgis, which in English became Alice. Allix is another spelling of the same name.
  • Denize is the feminine name from St Denis, the patron saint of France.
  • Luce is French for Lucia, a name made popular by St Lucy. Six French villages with churches dedicated to her are called Ste Luce.
  • Maheut is the German Mathild, which in English became Maud.
  • Ozanne, the old name for Palm Sunday, Hosanna Sunday, was often given to girls christened on that day. Ozanne's son would be called Jean, fils d'Ozanne, and then Jean Ozanne ; later his children would regard Ozanne as their family name.

Names from Occupations

Another way of distinguishing people was by their occupations. Even today we may know a man for years as 'postman' or 'waiter' without ever learning his real name. In this way such surnames arose as:

  • L'arbalestier, the crossbowman, which in England got twisted into Alabaster and Eyebhster
  • Le Boutillier, the maker of leather bottles
  • Boyer, the herdsman
  • Chevalier, the horse-breeder
  • Le Couteur, the church sacristan
  • Le Cronier, in the Extente of 1331 spelt Le Cornier, the maker of horn cups and spoons (cf. Little Jack Horner)
  • Le Cuirot, the skinner
  • Le Feuvre, the smith
  • Guerin, the game-keeper
  • Guiton, the page
  • Le Lacheur, the net-maker
  • Le Lai, Le Lay or Le Lait, the lay-brother of a monastery
  • Le Lene, the thief
  • Machon, the mason
  • Le Marinel, the sailor
  • Le Marquand, the merchant
  • Mercier, the haberdasher
  • Le Miere, the doctor
  • Le Monnier, the miller
  • Pasturel, the shepherdess
  • Potier, the potter
  • Rimeur, the rhymer, who composed and recited verses
  • Routier, the professional soldier or mercenary
  • Le Seeleur and Le Sauteur, the old and later French words for the leaper. (The original bearers of the name may have been athletes, but more probably professional tumblers)
  • Le Sueur, the shoe-maker
  • Le Tessier, the weaver
  • Le Tourneur, the turner
  • Le Verdier, the verderer or head forester
  • Le Vaguer, the voyager
  • Huchet was probably a huntsman, for the word means a hunter's horn
  • Gallic and Gallienne were old types of ships, galley and galleon; so the names were probably given to sailors.

Many of these words will not be found in a modern French Dictionary, but all were in use in the 12t century, when surnames were forming. And to these must be added Le Maistre, the master.

To this group also belong four names peculiar to the Feudal System:

  • Vavasseur was a vassal of a vassal, a man who held land, not directly from a Seigneur, but from one of the Seigneur's vassals.
  • Le Masurier was a man who had to pay masurage, a particular kind of quit rent.
  • Mesny was a domestic servant who lived in the mesnil or house. An inventory of 1308 runs, " Ce sont les noms de la mesnie qui sont demorez en ladite maison."
  • Le Serf was a bondman attached to the soil, who was transferred with it, when it passed to another owner. (The Le Cerfs were a distinct family).

Descriptive names

A third way of identifying a man was to add to his Christian name some word that described him, as school boys call one another Shrimp, or Ginger, or Fatty. You might speak of him as Jean Le Gros, Jean Grandin (a form of grand), Jean Le Bus, Jean Le Cras, Jean Le Petit, or, if you spoke Breton, Jean Bihan (small), Big John, Short John, Fat John, or Little John. In days when hair was worn long, its colour caught the eye. So we get Blondel, the blond, Le Brun, the brown-haired, Le Roux, the red-head, Le Liard, the iron-grey, Le Canu, Le Blanc and Gueno (a Breton name), the white-haired. Morel probably refers to the complexion, for it means dusky like a Moor.

Any physical peculiarity might give rise to a surname. The first Gobel, a bowl-shaped goblet, and the first Rondel, if they lived today, would probably be called Tubby. Indeed a good many names refer to waist-measurement:

  • Bidon, literally the sailors' grog-tub, is still the French schoolboy's equivalent for Big Belly.
  • Malzard, the round pot in which cider was set among the embers
  • Therin, another earthenware pot
  • Piquet, a corn measure
  • Roucault, a leather bottle

A large head also tickled the rustic sense of humour. The Cabot is a small fish that seems all head (It gets its name from the Latin, caput, a head). So probably the first Cabot's head seemed too large for his body. The French family of Chabot has three cabots for its arms. Did the first De La Taste get his name for the same reason ("'im with the 'ead")? In English Patent Rolls we meet with a Philip ove la Teste and an Emeric a la Teste. Costard, literally a ribbed apple, was also mediaeval slang for a head.

A long list could be made of other personal discourtesies:

  • Le Catvez and Coffin were bald
  • Le Borgne was blind in one eye
  • Piton had a long pointed nose. Rude boys still say, "Ote ton piton de devant mon soleil."
  • Bauche, in 1274 spelt De Buche, was the Man with the Mouth.
  • Bowhard probably also had the same meaning
  • Badier walked with his mouth open. His name comes from the Latin badare, to gape
  • Barette had a big beard, (Norse, barthr). Barthr, the big-bearded viking, is Baret in French records
  • Moignan had lost an arm, for this is still the French word for a stump left after amputation.

Some names which sound complimentary, Le Gresley, for example, which meant slim, from the Latin gracilis, and Beloeil, beautiful-eyed, may have been given by rustic humorists to men who were conspicuously the opposite.

  • Stank was strong, and so was
  • Brasdefer, arm of iron; and though this famous old Jersey family is now extinct, we have still Ferbrache whose name means exactly the same.
  • Blampied, white-foot, is a puzzle. One wonders how the whiteness of a man's feet attracted the attention of his neighbours. Yet it is not the corruption of some other word, for we get the name Whitefoot in England. Perhaps it was given in scorn to a man too dainty to get his feet dirty.
  • Le Caudey, the Man with the Tail, comes from a strange suspicion which more than one district harboured about its neighbours. All Devon used to believe that Cornishmen had tails concealed inside their trousers. Kentishmen whispered the same libel about the Men of Kent. And no doubt rival French districts cherished a similar belief. It is however possible that this name may have originally been spelt L'echaude, the man who had been scalded.

Some descriptive surnames refer to a man's age:

  • Viel, old
  • Jenne, young
  • Touzel, a stripling.

Others to his relationship to someone:

  • Laisney, the eldest son
  • Le Neveu, the nephew
  • Le Filhastre, the step-son
  • Filleul, the god-son.

Or to his wealth:

Or to some incident in his past

  • Mallet comes from the Old French maleit, accursed. The first Malet may have been excommunicated, or he may have seemed dogged by misfortune.
  • Messervy was a pitying name given to one who had been maltreated. In Wace we read of "son frere messervi", his ill-treated brother.
  • Curcoux was another compassionate name given to someone afflicted.
  • Le Cheminant, which literally means wayfarer, was often used of pilgrims, so the first Le Cheminant may have made one of the great pilgrimages to Rome or Santiago, but not to Jerusalem, or he would have been called Le Paumier, the palmer, a name once common in Jersey.
  • Bouteloup, thrust the wolf, had performed some exploit in the hunting-field.

Other nicknames underlined some point in the bearer's character.

  • Amy and Lamy and Bonamy and Monamy must have been friendly persons
  • Averty in Old French meant prudent. (Forewarned is forearmed). In Wace " avertiz e vaillanz," prudent and brave, is his highest praise.
  • Hardy, bold
  • Le Valliant, valiant
  • Le Sage, wise, were pleasant testimonials to earn from one's neighbours.
  • Le Cappelain, the chaplain
  • Le Clercq, the cleric
  • Le Moigne, the monk

were probably teasing titles for religiously-minded laymen.

But most nicknames are uncomplimentary

  • Le Sauvage, the savage, must have been a rough fellow.
  • Payn, le Paien, was regarded as a heathen. In the Extente of 1331 the name is "Paganus vel Payn."
  • Laffoley (l'affole) was considered crazy.
  • Poingdestre, right fist, was a pugnacious person.
  • Baillehache, given the hatchet, was probably even more murderous.
  • Tardif, slow, was no hustler. The name is given in the Bestiaries to the snail.
  • Le Pennec (a Breton word) was pig-headed.
  • Le Rey, the King
  • Le Duc, the Duke
  • Le Conte, the Count
  • Le Vesconte, the Viscount
  • Le Cardinel, the Cardinal
  • L'abbe, later spelt Labey, the Abbot

These latter five were jeers at pompous people who liked to give themselves airs. We once had a family in the island that was even called Le Dieu!

  • L'Hermite, the hermit, was obviously not a good mixer.
  • Herault, later spelt Ereaut, meant a herald. But there were few professional heralds. Only great Princes kept one. So probably this name too was given ironically to a loud-voiced person who expected everyone to listen to him.
  • Boileau, drink water, may have been an early teetotaller, or this again may be sarcasm.

No literature was more popular in the Middle Ages than the animal stories in which Reynard the fox or Tibald the cat set out to seek adventures, so it is not surprising to find a number of animal nicknames.

  • Le Goupil, the fox, must have been considered tricky.

The hare was proverbially timid; so

  • Le Lievre was most likely not conspicuous for courage.
  • Le Porqs, once an important family in Jersey, must have been ungainly or greedy.
  • Quenault, the puppy, may have been frolicsome.
  • Le Brocq, the badger, (from the Breton broc'h) was snappy and dangerous to bait.
  • Le Herrissier was a man who put up his bristles like a hedgehog,
  • Botrel, a little toad.

On the other hand names like Le Dain, the deer, Le Cerf, the stag, and Bichard, the little doe, were probably signs of affection.

  • Le Gal, the old word for a cock, and Le Cocq were both no doubt apt to crow over their exploits
  • Picot, the Normandy word for a turkey, to strut as he walked.
  • Le Heron may have had a long neck.
  • Corbel, the crow, may have got his name either from his glossy-black hair or from his croaking voice.
  • Le Rossignol, the nightingale, may have been a sweet singer, or only a chatterer; for rossignolerie in old French meant chattering.
  • Rougetel, the little mullet, was perhaps small, and rosy, and of a fish-like countenance.

The joke that underlies a nickname is often obscure to us, though no doubt screamingly funny to those who first made it. Why should a man be called Maillard, a wild drake? Or why Le Gerche, the clothes-moth? Or why Rabasse, which means weld, the weed from which a yellow dye is obtained. Yet Weld is also a surname in England. Was it a compliment to be called Flambard, a torch, or did it hint that you were a firebrand ? And why should anyone be named Gibaut, a bill-hook ? Had he once done something amusing with one, or was he bent nearly double?

  • Rebindaine means " with legs in the air ?" Rabelais wrote, " II le frappe un si grand coup, qu'il le getta en arriere a jambes rebindaines." No one can have made a habit of lying on his back with his legs pointing skyward.


Geographical names

If a man arrived in the island from outside, it was natural to describe him by the place from which he came.

  • Langlois was the Englishman
  • Le Gallais and Le Gallon the Welshmen (Galles is the French for Wales)
  • Le Breton came from Brittany
  • Norman from Normandy
  • Le Poidevin from Poitou,
  • D'Auvergne from Auvergne.
  • Briards' native home was La Brie, the corn-growing plain east of Paris. The Briards, the inhabitants of that district, were proverbial as particularly astute peasants "ruse comme un Briard".
  • Perchard was from Perche, the horse-breeding county south of Normandy
  • Groizards from the ile de Groix, off the coast of Brittany.
  • De Caux hailed from the Pays de Caux, round Yvetot.
  • Billot is a district near Lisieux. "Comme la noblesse de Billot" is a saying for proud poverty.
  • Du Heaume probably came from the Pays de Houirne, south of Falaise,
  • Sarre from the Pays du Saire, east of Cherbourg.
  • Bree may have been a Breton, for Wace calls them "les Brez"

Gallichan is an interesting example of the need of going back to the earliest form of a name. One writer derives it from two Latin words, gallus, a cock, and cano, I sing. Perhaps he guessed that the first Monsieur Gallichan was famous for rising at cock-crow. But in 1269 and 1306 the name was spelt Le Galicien, showing that he came from Galicia, probably the one in Spain. We hear more than once of Spanish traders settling in Jersey.

A glance at the map of the Cotentin peninsular, that juts north alongside Jersey, reveals the home of many of our families. From Mont Orgueil we see the port of Carteret, whence the de Carterets came, and the Cathedral spires of Coutances, from which the Coutanches took their name. The Pirouets sprang from Pirou, where the Jersey cable goes ashore, and opposite Rozel is La Haye du Puits the probable home of the De La Hayes (unless they came from La Haye Pesnel near Granville). Siouville, Chanteloup, Biard and Perier are place names in the Cotentin and surnames in Jersey. Pinel is a village near Cherbourg ; while a little south is Pierreville, where the De La Perrelles may have originated, for in 1274. they spelt their name De Perevilla. There are two villages named Ste Croix, from either of which the De Ste Croix may have come, and three hamlets called Gruchy, one of which produced the De Gruchys, unless they sprang from the larger village of that name near Caen.

Outside the Cotentin but still in Normandy we find Aubigny, Quetteville, Bouelle, and La Basle, the hometowns of the Daubignys, De Quettevilles, Boielles, and Baals. Houlbec, the beck in a hole, a river in a ravine, is a Scandinavian name found in many parts of Normandy, and by one of those streams the Houillebecqs must once have lived. The Venables came from. Venables, a village on the Seine, the seat of the Veneurs or hereditary huntsmen of the Norman Dukes. At least two of our old families have place names from north of the Channel, the Hamptonnes from the town that we now call Southampton, and the Hottons from one of the English Houghtons, perhaps the one near Northampton or the one near Leighton Buzzard.

Address names

A fifth group of names merely gives the bearer's address. It may tell us he lived near a tree.

  • Le Quesne and Quesnel lived by an oak (chene)
  • De Faye by a beech (Latin, fagus)
  • Le Corre by a hazel bush
  • Pemer by a pear tree
  • Kelenneg (a Breton word) in a holly grove
  • Dobrée in a grove of white poplars (aubree in Old French)
  • Du Bois in a wood
  • Du Pre lived in a meadow
  • De La Rocque by a rock
  • Du Jardin by a garden
  • De La Rue by a road (Roads were not then as plentiful as now)
  • Du Four at a place where the road forked (cf. the various Carrefours, four forks, in Jersey)
  • De La Mare by a pond
  • Du Pont by a bridge
  • Du Val in a valley
  • Becquet by a brook
  • Rive on the bank of a stream
  • De La Cour in the Seigneur's courtyard
  • Marett and Dumaresq, which in turn held La Haule Manor, came from swampy surroundings, for " Maresq " and " Marest " are both Old French for a marsh.

No one can say what the "pare" was near which Du Parcq lived, for in Old French " pare " meant a cattle pen, tournament lists, and a skittle alley, but had not yet come to mean what we call a park today.

Names capable of more than one explanation

There remain some names which can be explained in more ways than one.

  • Balleine, the French word for whale, may have been an insulting nickname, as the Norfolk Whalebelly must have been, unless one adopts Professor Weekley's suggestion that the original Mr Whalebelly walked inside the whale in the Miracle Play of Jonah; or it may have come from the village of La Baleine south of Coutances, where the name is a corruption of La Valeine, the village in the vale. In favour of the placename origin, the first time we meet the surname it is De Balena.
  • Bisson may come from the Old French besson, a twin, or from the Low Latin, bissonus, a lordless man who belonged to no fief; but, since the Extente of 1331 spells it Du Buisson, in Jersey at any rate the original owner probably lived near a thicket.
  • Dorey may be a name given to a man with golden hair (dore), or it may be short for Theodore.
  • Du Feu may come from " feu," a fief, or from " feu," a beech tree, or the first Du Feu may have had his house burnt down.
  • Fauvel means tawny; so it may be a name for someone with tawny hair. It .also means a fallow deer ; so it may be an animal nickname. And there is a third possibility. One of the favourite tales of the Middle Ages was the Roman de Fauvel, the story of a chestnut horse which tricked everybody ; so the name was often given to an artful dodger.
  • Giffard may have had a father whose name was Gifheardt, or he may have been chubby-cheeked, which is what the word meant in Old French.
  • La Cloche, was he I wonder, the church bell-ringer, or did his tongue go on and on like the clapper of a bell ?
  • Orange has nothing to do with the fruit, which was unknown in Europe when surnames were formed. The word was a Christian name and a place-name long before it was applied to the Eastern fruit, which Portuguese merchants introduced in the fifteenth century. Orange was a female name. In 1130 Pierre, son of Didier, gave his Guernsey property to the monks of Mont St. Michel "with the consent of Ozanne, his wife, and Orange, his daughter". In the Close Rolls of 1274 we hear of an Orengia Vautier in Jersey; and in 1307 an Orengia de Churcheyard was hanged in England. It was also a place name. In addition to the Principality on the Rhone that gave William of Orange to Holland, there were Oranges nearer Jersey, a Chateau d'Orange on the Couasnon, the river which divides Normandy from Brittany, a Port d'Orange in the Bay of Quiberon, and a Prairie d' Orange at La Gohanniere in Calvados. The Jersey family may be descended from a lady named Orange, or may have come from one of the places that bear this name.

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