Amuse-Bouche: A sporadic column on the perils of learning French

This is the first of a series of “Amuse Bouche”– humorous mouthfuls on the perplexities of French language and behavior by a former New Yorker now living in France. Many of these columns were originally published between 2006 and 2011 in the magazine France Today and on the website of the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in New York . Since then, they’ve been reprinted in other places and on other sites. They’ve even been used to provoke discussion in courses for French speakers learning English! There’s one (only one) in French: “French Kissing, la langue française”, written on request for a French-language magazine.  I’m open to new topics — send suggestions.

Today’s topic: What’s in a Name?
Naming your baby in France has gotten easier and riskier…

I had to ask France Aimée where she got a patriotic name like Beloved France. (What if my parents had named me Beloved United States?) Not patriotism, she said. Her mother is Aimée; her grandmother was named France. Well, I observed, her grandmother was born in 1915. I know another woman named France who was born during the German occupation in 1940. France Aimée’s name, she admitted, can provoke misunderstandings. Backpacking through Asia, she was paged at Jakarta airport: red carpet, flashing cameras, formal cocktail. It seems her Indonesian friend in Paris, to introduce her to someone local, had sent a telegram in English to a government official he knew, asking him to welcome “Miss France Aimée X.” Very excited, the office had quickly set up a reception for… Miss France!

The study of first names has become a hot topic. Sociologie des prénoms (2011) by Baptiste Coulmont was shortlisted for the “Prix du livre lycéen” (High School Book Prize), and the entire plot of a 2012 popular film, Le Prénom, revolved around a couple who want to name their future son Adolphe.

In 1964, when Gilbert Bécaud’s song “Nathalie” was a hit, some 32,000 baby girls were named Nathalie. This year, 40. In 1964, the most popular prénom for boys was Philippe. It ranks fifth overall for the past century. It lost favor just after World War II because the head of the Vichy régime was named Philippe Pétain, only to be salvaged in 1947, when Elizabeth II of England married Prince Philip.

The truly class-conscious seek archaic names like Humbert or Isabeau. Or their Breton roots yield Baudouin or Guénaele. As in the United States, someone with a truly weird, unpronounceable name is usually from an old family — the kind that would do that to an innocent newborn.

A law passed on 11 germinal an XI (April Fool’s Day, 1803) said you had to choose a name from an official list which no one seems to be able to locate anymore. Legal names included all saints with birthdays in the calendrier grégorien (paradoxical since France was using the calendrier révolutionnaire at the time) plus certain historic figures, which ones I can only guess: Cleopatra? Nero? If you wanted to call your kid Friday, tough luck.

Desperate for individuation, people developed nicknames. As Boris Vian’s 1955 song “Je suis snob” explains, “Je m’appelle Patrick, mais on dit Bob.” Additionally, la bonne bourgeoisie hatched a flock of hyphenations: Jean-Paul, Jean-Pierre, Jean-Claude for boys; Marie-Paule, Marie-Pierre, Marie-Claude for girls. These even showed seasonal variations. Marie-Noëlle explains hers: “I was born in October, a bit too soon after my parent’s March wedding. My name hints at a Christmas birthday.” A 1966 law, bowing to these faits accomplis, also allowed mythological names (Medusa?) and regional names. Aude is poetic, but Aisne? Unfortunate homonyms for that French département (pronounced N ) include aine (groin) and haine (hatred).

After a 1981 amnesty granting illegal immigrants citizenship, it wasn’t politiquement correct to force a saint’s name on a baby beur (French-born person of North African descent). Informally, parents could choose an alternative. Result: 1,784 boys named Mohamed.

But a name that might subject the child to ridicule risked a government veto. Results were inconsistent. Some bureaucrats rejected Marine: too nautical. For others, no problem. Since 1993, all rules are off. Last year Océane was really big.

So now you’re safe — you can name your kid anything you want: Evalouna, Mangabi, Clafoutis. Unless some civil servant questions your taste in names. Then the “judge of family affairs” will choose a more appropriate one (Tuesday?). But this creates new problems for psychologists. “What will happen to the child named Périphérique Nord, after the highway where his mother’s waters broke?” wondered François Bonifaix in Le Traumatisme du Prénom, (1995). Luckily, anyone over the age of 13 can legally change his or her name. Maybe I’ll change mine to Beloved United States.

© Julia Frey, 2016