Jersey names of French origin

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In 1991 a man by the name of Jacques Mauvoisin, a surname which translates literally as ‘bad neighbour’, undertook a survey of surnames of French origin in the Jersey telephone directory. His findings were published in a three-part article in the journal of the Channel Island Family History Society.

This article is drawn from those findings, and allied to the 1940 work on derivation of Jersey Surnames by George Balleine, published in full in Jerripedia, and the 1980s article on old family names of the Channel Islands by historian Frank Le Maistre, which forms the basis for another article on the site, it provides further valuable background material for those researching Jersey families.

Mr Mauvoisin found approximately 40,000 subscribers in the 1991 telephone directory, with 7,200 different surnames, of which approximately 1,200 were of French origin, representing 9,300 subscribers. In other words, a sixth of the surnames were French, and represented nearly a quarter of subscribers. He based his comments on two definitive French works by Albert Dauzat: Les noms de Famille en France and Dictionnaire etymologique des noms de Famille et des Prénoms en France. The author divided surnames into four groups

  • Based on Christian names
  • Based on a place of origin or characteristics of that area
  • Based on trade or profession
  • Derived from nicknames

Based on Christian names

Many surnames which originated as baptismal names can be traced back to biblical times; Mauvoisin found 83 Noels, named after Christmas, and believed that the three Ozannes (a name much more common in Guernsey) derived from the Hosannah.

Many more surnames were, however, of Germanic origin – 120 of the 1,200. The writer found 90 Baudains, originally ‘bold’; 52 Mauger ‘Amal’s lance’; 31 Rault ‘wise wolf’, 31 Garnier ‘protecting army’ and 19 Richard ‘hard and powerful’. He notes that forenames with a Germanic origin were popular in Europe in the 8th and 9th centuries, but then tended to be replaced by those with a Romance origin.

Spellings could vary, and whereas names such as Guilbert and Gautier are found in central France, Vibert and Vautier are more common in Jersey. There were 55 Vautiers in the 1991 directory, but only 15 Gautiers; Guilbert, which is distinct in origin from Gilbert, was not found, but there were 99 ‘glory deserving’ Viberts. Conversely, there were 16 Gaudins but only three Vaudins.

As might be expected Mauvoisin identified names of Norse origin, which came to Jersey via Normandy and are still present there. There were seven Esnouf ‘eagle and wolf’, 17 Ozouf ‘divine wolf’, 115 Renouf ‘wise wolf, and 14 Surcouf ‘black wolf’.

He appears to disagree with Frank Le Maistre’s assertion that Hacquoil is a name which first appeared in Jersey and is not of French origin, including it in his list as derived from the mediaeval Hasculfus, meaning someone coming from the Horda area in Norway.

He suggests that the four Anquetils ‘cauldron of the gods’ could probably lay claim to having the oldest Norman name in Jersey, because it appears in a charter dating from 1090.

Mauvosin found relatively few names based on saints of Gallo-Roman origin. There were three Joseph, eight Jean, 31 Jeanne, 38 Jehan or Le Jehan, 58 Luce from St Lucius, 14 Aubin, named after a 6th century Bishop of Angers, and 9 Andrieux.

He identifies that three very common Jersey names, Falle (52 examples in the dirctory) , Benest (52) and Romeril 61) are virtually unknown in France, yet they are derived, respectively, from Fidolus, a saint from the Tours area, St Benedict, and Romaricus, a 7th century bishop.

Surnames with a female origin are very rare. Jeanne has already been mentioned, but Marie, the commonest surname in the Cotentin area of Normandy, had only 26 representatives in the 1991 Jersey directory.

It is suggested that the practice prevalent as late as the 19th century in Basse Normandie of giving illegitimate children their mother’s baptismal name as a surname does not appear to have been known in Jersey.

Place names

Mauvoin cautions that although names such as de Carteret, indicating someone from the family named after the Cotentin coastal town, indicate noble roots, the same is not true for every name with the prefix ‘de’. More often than not it simply indicates the place of origin.

In the 1991 directory he found de la Haye (116), de Gruchy (95), de la Cour (37), de la Mare (26), de Ste Croix (32), d’Orleans (2), de Caen (5). There are also many surnames based on place names, with the ‘de’ absent but understood: Fallaize (17), Sinclair (16), Gruchy (11), Redon (30), Vernon(3), Dreux(3), Montgomery (8) and Beuzeval (10) were among them. The majority of the French placenames to feature among Jersey surnames are, unsurprisingly, to be found in Normandy, but there are exceptions. Mauvoisin notes that villages called La Haye or Sainte-Croix are to be found elsewhere in France. He also suggests that the common Jersey surname Coutanche (58) might not necessarily denote an originaire of the Normandy town of Coutances.

More Jersey families are named after the type of area they originally lived in rather than a particular place. A person living in the woods was Bois, or its variations (17); in the bush, Bisson (112); a copse Bouchet (7); a damp wood, Breuilly (7); or a forest, Ramage (4).

Sometimes the surname is even more specific, identifying the type of tree the holder lived close to (presumably not in): Cassin (15), Duchesne (2), Duquesne (1), and Le Quesne (62) are all derived from French words for oak; du Fresne(2) comes from ash; Fage (4) and Fay(2) from beech; Le Saux(2) from willow.

De La Riviere is extinct but Delanoe (11) refers to a small stream. Hamel (11) lived in a hamlet, Chastel (5) in or near a castle, Duchemin (4) and Duquemin (10) by a path, Roche (24) by a rock. Given the topography of Jersey and nearby Normandy it is unsurprising that there are no Montagnes to be found in the island telephone directory.

Other family names cover those emanating from a wider area: 57 Le Bretons from nearby Brittany, 31 Le Gallais and 15 Vallois from Wales (or were Le Gallais and Le Gall (5) from the Gallic western end of Brittany, or even French-speaking Gauls from the eastern end of the region?). Langlois (43) was what the French-speaking Jerseymen called the first Englishmen to arrive. Le Poidevin (11) came from Poitou but elswhere than Jersey and Guernsey would usually be found as Poitevin.

There were 91 subscribers in 1991 called Gallichan ‘from Spain’, which although a very common name in Jersey is almost unknown in Normandy.

Professions and kinship

Names with a church background are quite common: Le Clerc(q) (19) and Cloarec (5) were clerks in holy orders; Le Couteur (24) the verger; but Vasse (20) was a young nobleman in Normandy, as was Noble (9) and they were likely to have Le Page (6) or Page (13) as a servant.

Pallot (90) worked with a shovel, Picot (36) with a pick, and Marchand (2), Le Marchand (13) and Le Marquand (96) were shopkeepers or merchants of some sort. Lefevre, the simplest French form of smith, had vanished by 1991, but Mauvoisin found 74 Le Feuvre, 4 Le Fevre, 2 Le Febvres and one Faure. Le Sueur (71) may have been a cobbler or, not a seigneur (Le Sieur) as the name would literally suggest, but an arrogant person of lower rank. Du Feu (96) was a blacksmith or another person working with fire, Le Brocq (69) made pointed weapons, needles etc, Le Monnier (43) was a miller, Le Cuirot (19) a leather merchant and Larbalestier (18) made crossbows.

Queree (62) is the Breton equivalent of Le Sueur, so we can make an educated guess at where he came from and what he did; Le Guyader (7) was a Breton weaver, Cartier (4) a Norman carter and Le Coutourier (2) a Norman tailor.

Nicknames

A third of the Jersey names of French orgin have their derivation in nicknames, perhaps the most obvious way of distinguishing between two people with the same given name – fat and thin, tall and short, dark and blond, etc.

They could be far from complimentary, and the majority of those bearing surnames indicating a rank – Le Vesconte (36) ‘Viscount’, Chevalier (18) ‘knight’, Le Comte (9) ‘count’, Le Roy (10) ‘king’ and Lempriere (21) ‘Emperor’ were far more likely to have been given these names because they worked for people with these titles; or behaved like them. Labey (18) ‘abbot’, Prior (9) and Le Pape (2) were likely to have been satirical titles. Le Maistre (69) was, however, almost certainly a farmer.

Poignard (15) could have been expected to punch you and Poingdestre (29) to have used his right fist. Le Lievre (17) ‘hare’, Miollet (17) ‘softie’, and Le Bon ‘good’ were much less likely to have been pugnacious. Grihault (7) ‘cricket’ was cheerful, Le Liard (3) happy, and Le Rossignol (17) either sang like the lark, or sufficiently badly to deserve mocking.

Amy (68) and Lamy (11) were lovers, Amourette (3) more likely to flirt and Cotillard (25) to be a womaniser, or ‘petticoat chaser’. Belhomme (12) was handsome, Le Long (17) and Le Grand (3) were tall – not to be confused with Le Gros (36) who was fat – and Le Petit (7) was small. Poor Moignard (21) had one arm and Perchard (62) was gangling. Le Couillard (22) may or may not have wanted the world to know that he was ‘well hung’, and Le Gresley (46) may have had a pockmarked ancestor, Rondel (57) and Botrel (7) a short and tubby one, Carre (35) a burly one, but did they care to be saddled with this description themselves?

Le Clair (21) was very pale of complexion, Morin (34) and Morel (23) were swarthy like Moors. Perhaps Mourant was, too, but recent researchers bearing the name perhaps understandably preferred to link it to a village in the centre of France.

Le Blanc (24), Blanchet (10) and Le Canet (2) had white hair; Le Blond (11) and Blondel (7) were fair-haired, whereas Fauvel (17) was more tawny. Le Roux (14), Le Rougetel (5) and Sorel (2) were red-haired; Le Brun (54) had brown hair, but the black-haired Lenoirs, common in France, seem somehow to have avoided Jersey. Touzel (19) wore his hair short and Cauvain (20) and Pelle (1) were bald.

Spelling

Mauvoisin finally notes that the ancient spelling of several Jersey names has survived, whereas it has changed in France. The unpronounced ‘s’ in Paisnel, Pastural, Le Quesne, Filliastre and Poingdestre, along with a dozen or so other names is not to be found in today’s French equivalent. French names such as Robillard, pronounced ‘-yard’ have an extra ‘i’ in Jersey’s Robilliard; as do Le Couilliard, Le Boutillier and Filliastre.

Of 220 Jersey names beginning ‘Le’ only 14 have been combined into a single word; in France, over the past 200 years, it has been much more common to find them conjoined at Lebreton, Leblanc, Leconte, Lemaitre, etc, but Jersey adheres to a much older tradition.

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