What Genealogists Should Know About Dit Names

tombstone of william the conquerer What is a “dit” name? It’s something that confounds and confuses many a genealogist. It’s not exactly a surname, except when it has been altered into one. Dit names do not necessarily follow the pattern you might be expecting when you look at the other surnames in your family tree. Trying to figure out who the descendants are of an ancestor who used a dit name is not always easy, or straightforward. Before you become too frustrated, you might want to learn a little bit about dit names.

Dit names are extensions to existing names. Often, these extended names later became incorporated as part of the surname. A dit name isn’t just a nickname or an alias. The word “dit” is a French word that means “said” in English. Originally, the dit name was something used among members of the royal class. If something was added to the name, it was often something that referenced that person’s military service or accomplishments.

How does this all work together? Let’s use William the Conqueror as an example. Guillaume, Duke of Normandie was known for his military conquests. So, his dit name became Guillaume dit le Conquerant. In 1066, he invaded England. Now, the English people were not able to easily pronounce his first name, Guillaume. It sounded similar to a first name in English though: William. So, Guillaume dit le Conquerant became William the Conqueror.

Later on, in the late 1500’s, dit names started to become more popular in France. This was due to a rise in population. Eventually, there was a need for another system of naming to differentiate between members of the same family who had both a surname and a first name in common. Now, a person’s dit name may refer to an aspect of his personality, his physical description, his occupation, or the place where he lived, as well as his military service.

Genealogists today might find it difficult to locate records on ancestors who used dit names. Some search engines are not set up to “understand” what you are trying to find when you type in a dit name. Other problems occur when the dit name includes accent marks that are not always possible to put into a search engine. The problem compounds when you cannot add the accent mark into the search engine, and the person who entered the data into the archive couldn’t do it either. Another confusing thing about dit names is that it is possible that you will end up with a situation where the parent’s and their offspring appear to have completely different surnames. This requires a genealogist to be a little bit creative as they search. If your ancestor’s surname was de Hudon, try typing in Hudon instead. Or, try the surname of that person’s spouse, instead.

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