Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Devil's In The "Dit" Names

When I was trying to figure out how to find out my Great-Grandfather Joseph’s birth name, I ran straight into the problem of “dit” names. “Dit” means “said” or “called”; essentially, they are added names or nicknames, vital in a society where many people had the same surname (because of the small number of early settlers) and where certain personal names were extremely common.

I had already encountered this kind of thing in researching my Danish ancestry. Until the mid-1800s, very few ordinary folk in Denmark had genuine surnames. Instead, they used patronyms: if your father was named Jens, you were a Jensen (or Jensdatter). Since every parish would have, for example, several Peder Sørensens, it was necessary to use added names (“tilnavne”) so that you could have ordinary conversations without having to make long-winded explanations about which Peder Sørensen you meant.

These could indicate an occupation, an associated place, a personal characteristic—or simply the added name used by a previous occupant of the cottage you lived in. In addition, the Danish Army assigned to every rural recruit the name of his birthplace (parish, village, or even farm) as a military tilnavn. Many recruits kept their military tilnavne once they were released from the army, especially if they decided to live someplace other than their birthplace.

In 17th-century France, and therefore in early Quebec, the original dit names, like the Danish military tilnavne, were often “noms de guerre”, military added names of personnel, essential because some surnames were very common and some men didn’t have surnames at all. When a commander had 3 men in his company named Pierre Roi and 6 other men surnamed Roi plus several men with no surnames at all, he would assign a dit name to each. He knew that he needed to be able to give orders quickly in the heat of battle, without going into long-winded explanations as to which man was being ordered to take a particular action.

So, as soon as he was enlisted, one Pierre Roi might become Pierre Roi-dit-Dejardins (and plain “Dejardins!” in the heat of battle), the second might be Roi-dit-Lapensée, and the third might be Roi-dit-St-Jean because that was the name of his home parish. Some of the Roi recruits might already have dit names inherited from earlier family members who had served. Men who didn’t have surnames already were assigned names which then became surnames.

You can read more about military origins of many Quebec dit names here.

However, society changes with the times, and not all dit names came from military service. Very early in the history of Quebec, dit names often were adopted to distinguish between unrelated civilians with the same surname. Joseph Levasseur dit de Nere was nobleman and the royal engineer in charge of fortifications, while Jean and Pierre Levasseur were brothers from a line of master sculptors and woodworkers; Jean used the dit name Lavigne, while Pierre used L’esperance.

Quebec families tended to have lots of children (12 or more was not uncommon), and certain personal names were extremely popular, so that If the extended family stayed in the same area for two or three generations, there would be lots of them with identical names. The descendants of two brothers might take on as dit names the surname or dit name of their wives. For example, several of the children of Pierre Levasseur dit L’esperance used their mother’s surname, Chanverlange, as a dit name. As with Danish tilnavne, dit names enabled you to tell people apart . . . at least for the first two or three generations.

When I first discovered dit names, I knew that I needed help, so I looked online and discovered Robert J. Quintin’s The Dit Name: French-Canadian Surnames, Aliases, Adulterations, and Anglicizations. I bought a copy immediately. This excellent source is now out of print, but there are probably some used copies still available.

Tanguay’s Dictionnaire has a listing of dit names matched with surnames and you can access that online. You can also download a list of common surnames and associated dit names; it’s not complete, but it’s a good start if any of your Quebec ancestral names are in it.

I discovered that the word “dit” does not always appear in the written record when a dit name is being used, and I think I know why. It’s a tad faster to write Dubois-Jolicoueur than it is to write Dubois-dit-Jolicoeuer and over time, it saves a bit on ink and paper. This was not a silly issue in the early days of Quebec, when paper was imported from France and you had to make your own ink; the practice also let you go a bit longer between sharpenings of your quill pen.

Anyone, male or female, might appear in one record with the surname only, in another record with surname plus dit name, and in yet another with the dit name only. If your ancestor’s personal name was, for example, Jean-François, he may be Jean-François in one record, plain Jean in another, and plain François in another. Combine the variations of both personal names, surnames, and dit names and the confusion multiplies accordingly.

Getting nervous? Wait, it gets worse: sometimes people apparently forgot which name was the original and which was the dit name. I learned there are plenty of records where the dit name was used as the surname and the original surname became the dit name. Even worse, most surnames are associated with multiple dit names and most dit names are associated with multiple surnames.

In the case of my great-grandfather, I was lucky: there were only two dit names listed that he might have used. Chaussé is a relatively uncommon name. His original surname might have been plain Chaussé, Han-dit-Chaussé, or Chaussé-dit-Lemeine (these are all completely separate family lines). This meant that I had to look not only for Chaussé under all possible spellings but also for Han (or An or even Ham) or Lemeine as part of the mix. His baptism record might even have called him Chaussé-dit-Han or Lemeine-dit-Chaussé.

I am thankful that when I started all this, I didn't know that because Great-Grandfather Joseph was born about 1831ish, long past the end of the French Regime, he might have been recorded with a newer dit name derived from, say, his mother or an in-law: a name therefore not in the lists of dit names for Chaussé. That would have been scary.

I am also thankful that Great-Grandfather Joseph, who crossed the border and settled in the USA—where surname plus dit name would be distinctly “un-American”— did not choose to “americanize” his identity by translating his French surname into possibles like Girdle, Stocking, Shoe, Ground, Street, or even Ham. He might have chosen between using his surname or his dit name as his American surname on the basis of which was shorter and/or easier for speakers of English to pronounce, but Chaussé didn't seem to be much improvement over Han or Lemeine.

Even so, I realized that I would have to search for him in Quebec among dozens of possible combinations and spellings.

It's little things like this that make some rookie genealogists give up and decide to take up gardening instead.

Tags: genealogy, Quebec, dit names, Chaussé

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