Lovely Awkward: A Year of Wine, Romance and Life Among the French

Lovely Awkward: A Year of Wine, Romance and Life Among the French

Thursday 20 October 2011

Babies à la mode in France -- but the names?

Baby flash: Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, the wife of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, gave birth to a little girl last night at around 7 p.m. in Paris.

The finer details are still being written and posted by most news organizations, but the fact that the baby is a girl and that the timing of the birth is interesting (given the upcoming G20 in Cannes and France's upcoming spring election), seem to be fairly standard in all of the early reports. Here's the story in Le PointLe Post, and the Guardian (English).

What's missing in these reports, however, and what interests me most, is the baby's name! I'm not much of a stargazer, but I've got an extra special interest in French names at the moment.

Over the last few days I've been poring over web sites with French names, English names, Irish names, Welsh names and Scottish names. The Prof. is French and my background makes up the rest. Baby naming, I'm learning, is hard -- especially when the future grandparents on both sides are uni-lingual and don't speak the same language as each other. I've been doing research, trying to find a few options that work for both.

And, what I've found isn't just interesting to me from a baby-crazy point of view, it's also interesting from a cultural point of view in general.

Origins: Many, many of the names in a number of cultures come from religious figures. In France, the saints have different days on the calendar and some babies are simply named after which ever saint's feast day falls on the day they were born. This seems to mostly be a European and North American tradition that comes from Catholicism. This is one of the reasons that the variety of names used is smaller in France. There's some info on name days here.

Restrictions: In France, certain restrictions were put on names that could be chosen for babies, almost all of which were lifted by 1993 (Here, in English). There was once a list of approved names that parents could choose from; now they're just not allowed to choose names that go against the interest of a child, ie. naming your child Post Office or Poopy (although
maybe those could make it through the process here now, too). In Canada, offensive names can probably still be nixed, but almost anything goesHere's a list of the restrictions found in some other countries.

Pronunciation: This is a big deal for me since my name in France has two rolling Rs and took me some time to get used to. People who speak different languages will inevitably read names differently, even if they can eventually be taught how to say it the way you like. ie: An English "James" (JAY-mm-ss) becomes a French "Yam," and French "Apolline" (APP-oh-lean) becomes an English "a-POLE-ine." It's possible to like a name in one language and hate it in another language, just by the way it sounds. Here's a BETA site that offers some audio of different ways to pronounce names.

Translation: Some names don't just get pronounced differently in a different language, they get completely transformed. ie: the French "Etienne" is the same name as the English "Stephen." I'm sure this is a personal choice, but it's still something to consider. Your kid could opt for an unexpected name change if you switch countries. This site offers name translations.

Cultural significance: Some names are cool in some countries and some are cool in others. Since we've got a ton of French names in Canada, I'd already heard a few that I'd liked, but some of them ended up being too well known from TV shows or famous people here in France, and vice verse. ie: To me, "Marianne" is the name of one of the women who got stuck on Gilligan's Island and to the Prof., she's either a magazine or a symbol of the French Republic.

Nicknames: This difference was a huge discovery for me and has been a difficult thing for both of us to learn about each other's cultures. In Canada, nicknames are shorter names that are usually created by dropping the end of a first name or by going with a commonly accepted contraction. ie: Robert = Bob; Timothy = Tim; Elizabeth = Lizzy, Liz, Beth, etc. In French, the same rules seem to apply much of the time (some common contractions are Edouard = Eddy; Suzanne = Suzie), but sometimes repetition is simply applied to a few letters. For instance, in French, "Laurent" can also become "Lolo," and "André" can become "DéDé." I've tried to explain that a long name will most definitely be shortened by strangers in the English world, whether our kid likes the idea or not, and the Prof. has tried to explain the these tiny little repetitive names (ones that a baby might first be able to say) may also just appear unexpectedly (unexpectedly for me, at least).

There are some other details that I was always aware of, such as the French's love for hyphenated names, and the Prof. knows that Canadians sometimes give their kids wacky hippie names or names from their family's country of origin (even if they've never set foot in them).

It's a tough game, but we're still playing. If I say the name and the baby kicks, we've put it on the list. (I hope babies kick when they're happy and not just when they're annoyed.)

Here are some good naming sites that I've found, in both languages:



Anyone have any bilingual favourites?


  1. My daughter, living in San Francisco and married to a man of Italian lineage, just had ly first grandson on the 13th. They named him Sebastian.

  2. Labergerebasque: I love the name Sebastian or Sebastien. It's definitely on the list!

    Congratulations on your new grandchild!!