RICH OR POOR? WHAT THEIR FIRST NAMES SAY ABOUT THE FRENCH

We know that names are not given by chance: people bear names that reflect their genders, religions, their nationalities. Well then, what are typical French names, you may wonder?

1. The official list of the very French names

Spontaneously, to get an idea of what are typical French names, I would recommend you have a look at any calendar in French and check the saints. These names are very traditional ones I would say.

But I also discovered an official list of the names considered French by the French authorities. This list is submitted to all people about to adopt the French citizenship, and who might want to change their first names for a typical French one, “in order to facilitate the integration and daily life of the newly French”.

Now, if you are currently looking for a French name for your baby, of course, some names are in trend, others are outdated. It is sometimes funny for us French to see that some French-sounding names borne by US-American stars are completely outdated and only borne by French grandmas, like Michelle, Nicole, or Jacqueline. If by chance you were wondering which names are popular in France right now, check this website!

But names also are social indicators. Within a culture, some names are typical to certain social backgrounds, and reflect the tastes, mentalities, values of the parents who give them to their children. Are there names typical to the French upper class? Are there names that we only find in the French lower class?

2. French names and social backgrounds

A study carried by French sociologist Baptiste Coulmont in 2012 and 2013 highlighted the correlation between names of students and the highest honors (“mention très bien” for grades above 16/20) you can have at the Baccalauréat, exam at the end of highschool. As I said before, names may be indications of the social backgrounds of their owners, and we can’t ignore that often (not always), children of higher social backgrounds do better at school than children of lower social backgrounds.

Now, if you please, let’s have a look at Baptiste Coulmont’s findings. On the charts above, the recurrence of names (millenium generation) is indicated vertically, the percent of honors/names, horizontally.

Note that Coulmont only took into account names which had at least 200 owners.

2.1 French girls’ names are more socially eloquent

The first thing you can straight away notice, is that girls do it better than boys. The leader pack is composed of an armada of Dianes, Adèles (20% had highest honors), Juliettes, Alices, Louises, Annes or Alixes. The first boy’s name is Grégoire (15% had highest honors).

Nevertheless, you have to take into account the fact that there is a greater variety of girls’ names than boys’ names on the baby name market. Classic French boys names tend to be shared more evenly within the population, regardless of the social background. On the opposite, parents are a little more wild/creative/dary with girls’ names. There is a greater variety of girls´ names and some are particularly linked to certain social backgrounds.

2.2 The names of the French middle+ class

The second thing you can notice if you’re French, is that yes indeed, the names on the right are kind of typical of kids coming from educated families. On this matter, little coincidence, let’s just take a moment to reflect on the name Adèle. If you are German, you will straight away catch the fact that “Adèle” sounds like “Adel”, which means “noble”. In other words, Adèle is etymologically an aristocratic name.

But the chart doesn’t give you the most BCBG names, such as Guillemette, Quitterie, Madeleine, Anne-Claire, Ella, Sibylle, Marguerite, Hannah (?), Irene, Domitille, (Ulysse and Octave for boys) which don’t appear because there are relatively rare, but were correlated with outstanding results at the Bac.

Let us now look at the other end of the chart.

2.3 The names of the French lower class

While on the one side, 20% of Adèles passed their Bac with the highest honors, on the other, only 3% of the Sabrinas and Kevins did.

A. Exotic names = names of immigrants

Sabrinas… Anissa or Sonia are not traditional French names, and they indicate often that their owners are “issues de l’immigration” or “with immigration origins” as we put it here in France, because we don’t feel very comfy with other available words such as “race”, “ethnicity”, or even “minority” — ask Adolph why.

Little parenthesis by the way, if there is a name which has become abominated and taboo, it is definitely Adolph, and I’m sure I’m not talking about France only. I have heard only once about a guy of my age whose name was Louis-Adolph, and his name was pretty much a statement of its own because he was very traditionalist+catholic+extreme rightist = the nightmare of our Sabrinas, Sonias, and Anissas ; actually, I can’t imagine how a Louis-Adolph can’t be everyone’s nightmare.

So yeah, we’re not going to hide it, in France like in other countries with immigration, immigrants often come with a low academic capital and their kids have difficulties at school. As a result, French people with immigration origins have a hard time climbing the social ladder.

B. Names of the US mythology

And now… Kevin. I’m gonna be frank, and sorry if your name is Kevin: in the eyes of the people located on the right of our chart, Kevin is THE most bad-taste name on earth. For the 3% of Kevin who did great at school, it is sad, but their name is probably going to be a difficulty in the future. Kevin is originally a Gaelic name, so had it stayed among Breton people, who have Celtic roots, it would have been all cool.

The problem is that its popularity is due to the success of US-American TV shows which were broadcasted in the 80s and 90s. If giving one’s baby the name of Beverly Hills, The Young and the Restless, Melrose Place, or Miami Vice characters seems super fashionable for some people, it can be considered ridiculous and nonsensical for other, especially when no one can pronounce it in the country. Take Heather for example -> in French : it becomes “Eder”, or “Ezer”, and I can’t even think of what would happen of “Sean”.

Among people who don’t appear on the chart because there were too few of them, and had a low % of highest honors, you have Asma, Sephora, Hakim, Kimberley, Assia, Cynthia, Brenda, Christian, Bilal, Brian, Melvin, Johann, Eddy, and Rudy, a mix of some French, US-American and “exotic” names.

And at last: Bed time story!! Once upon a time, I knew a guy whose first name was François ; 15% have the highest honors, we got it. And his last name H****** (French last name). The thing is, originally, François H. was far from being French: his family had emigrated from China when he was six. During the naturalization process, the French authorities suggested that François’ family should both adopt French first names and last names. François’ dad received a list of last names, and he chose one, H*******, that they would be the only ones to bear, though other French families had variations of it, without an H, or with one L only. And this is how François’ family inherited from the name of and extinct rural noble family from somewhere in South Western France. And they lived happily ever after.

Keep in mind that this kind of sociological study will only give you some landmarks for you to get around more easily, but at the end of the day, each person has their own stories. Think of François’ example: it’s never exactly what you would expect.