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What is a Dit Name and Why Is It Important to Family History?

While conducting French, French-Canadian, or Acadian ancestral research, the researcher may come to a grinding halt because records begin to show surnames that do not match, or a new surname arises that causes the researcher to believe that he or she has uncovered an unrelated family group. What should have been a simple search of church records, with an already known date and place of birth, leads to confusion when the family name does not match what the researcher already knows to be fact. This article addresses the "dit" phenomena as it may occur within some French ancestral families and provides information that will assist the researcher in continuing uninterrupted with the research.

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Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by: AnnMarie Gilin-Dodson
Word Count: 626 (approx.)
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Perhaps you are one of the many researchers who are looking for French, French-Canadian or Acadian ancestors. It is quite possible that at some point in your research you will encounter a dead end or a contradiction concerning an ancestor's surname. For example, one may find a grandmother's birth certificate that clearly shows her surname as Liboiron, and in this record it is obvious that Liboiron is her father's surname. While her death record is consistent with her birth certificate, showing her surname as Liboiron, this same death record indicates her father's surname as Timothee.

How can this be—was she adopted, is this a stepfather, is it an error made by the registrar? Although those situations could be the case, it is not so in the example above. The information provided below offers clarification about a unique but straightforward French naming convention that can be quite helpful to the researcher.

Within a French culture, it is possible to know a family by two, interchangeable surnames or by the two surnames linked as one family name. The French refer to the second surname as a "dit" name. The use of a dit name is the custom of attaching an additional surname to the original family name. The word dit in English means, "called." Applying the surname example above, that essentially refers to the family members as Liboiron "called" Timothee. The second surname, often used by many generations of descendents, serves as an added identifier to that particular family line. This new family name makes that branch of the family distinctive from other family groups that have the original surname in common. The family branch that has adopted the dit name, although unique, does not lose its identity as a member of the ancestral family. The addition of a dit name is not the case within every family of French ancestry, but is sufficiently common to be problematic to the researcher.

An individual or a family might acquire a dit name in many ways. The dit may refer to the family's country or regional place of origin. In some instances, it is a name taken or earned during military service or is the first name of the head of a family, to separate that branch of the family from those of other relatives. When the wife's family is titled or especially prestigious, the husband could add her surname to his as a dit name. Even a lifelong nickname or unique place of birth has become a dit name. The story behind the dit name can be an added point of interest to the ancestral story, or it may remain an unsolvable family mystery. The most important element is to identify the existence of a dit name and its various forms so research can continue.

Provided below are some web links to assist you in identifying French-Canadian or Acadian dit names.

The RootsWeb free pages link includes an article entitled, Family Names and Nicknames in Colonial QUÉBEC. The article includes a comprehensive list of French-Canadian dit names.

The American-French Genealogical Society web site provides an index of French-Canadian surnames that includes dit names, English variations, and Anglicization and Latin variants of French names.

At the Eogen, The Encyclopedia of Genealogy, web site you can link to a list of Acadian dit names.

Researchers interested in the early Detroit settlement period, will find a virtual version of C.M. Burton's informative book, Cadillac's Village or Detroit under Cadillac. The text includes the names and dit names of early Detroit, French-Canadian settlers. The book includes the transcription of a letter to Burton from Father Denissen, where Denissen explains the dit name and its history. The letter begins on page 47 of 274 electronic pages or as page 41 of the actual text.

Good luck, and have fun!

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2009.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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