This post was inspired by a message my friend Marian Pierre-Louis posted on Facebook. She is experiencing French-Canadian for the first time in helping a friend with her research. the question posed was “How do I handle dit names in genealogy programs or online trees?!!”
Dit names are sobriquets; nicknames to differentiate individuals who bear the same surname. (The word dit literally translates to called in English.) This practice was carried over from France to the New World, and was especially important in New France. The number of immigrants was quite small, and in a very short time it was necessary to tell the difference between all these people bearing the same or similar names. Dit names came about in a variety of different ways: personality (Jolicoeur), hair color (Leblanc or Leblonde), where the individual lived (Lamontagne or Larivière), or many other ways.
This multiple surname scenario causes issues with genealogy database programs and online trees. As a rule, they force you to choose a single surname as the standard surname, allowing you to attach other surnames for an individual. This is not the way these surnames were used. They were alternative but equivalent surnames, and used interchangeably. Sometimes they use dthe wor dit to connect them, sometimes it was a hyphen, sometimes nothing at all to link them. Individuals might use the original name in one record, the dit name only in another record, go back to the original surname, then use both in the next. In some families, the original name was eventually dropped in favor of the dit name as the surname. This is what happened in my family, as the name Houde went through multiple transitions to become Leclerc.
My seventh-great grandfather, Gabriel Houde, married Jeanne Petitclerc at Ste. Foye on 21 November 1713. They went on to have six children over the next decade, one of whom died in infancy. Of the five who lived to adulthood, three were boys and two were girls. Gabriel and the children sometimes used the dit name Houle. The two daughters continued to use the surnames Houde and Houle. The eldest son, Augustin, used Houde dit Clair. The next son, Claude (my sixth-great grandfather) and the youngest, Alexis, used Houde, Houle, Clair, and Clair Houde.
As they got older, they and their children would often appear in records as simply Clair Houde. Claude’s son Antoine used Houde, Houle, Clair, Claire, Clair Houde, Claire Houde, Clair Houle, and Claire Houle. Antoine’s great-grandson, Abraham, was born in 1862 as Abraham Clair Houde. He was my great-great grandfather, and brought his young family to Rhode Island in the 1890s. From that point forward, the family name was Leclerc.
This is one of the many reasons why I only use genealogy database programs for data management. For genealogical purposes, information is written up in word documents. That way, each record statement contains the version of the surname that was used in that record, something the database programs do not currently allow. The best of all worlds, however, would allow us to print all the names our ancestor used on consecutive lines in the same box.
The use of dit names was ubiquitous for more than two centuries. Despite the Quebec Act’s protections of French-Canadian culture, by the 1870s Anglo officials pressured them to “pick a surname and stick with it.” The practice of dit names dropped precipitously in Quebec, and those who migrated to the U.S. were also forced to pick a single name.