Prepared by Elisabeth Lindsay.
French surnames were first used in the 11th century to distinguish people who had the same given name, but surnames for all didn't become common until centuries later. As in other countries, French surnames developed from four major sources: patronymics and matronymics, occupations, description, and geographic region.
A study of French surnames, including the use of prefixes, and suffixes and common French naming conventions can help you better understand your French ancestry and learn more about individual ancestors; a great many resources are available online to help you. The general history of the country, especially periods of foreign invasion and occupation, is also important in understanding how your French ancestor's name derived.