Amuse Bouche: What’s in a name? (bis) — Le Name Dropping

Even as they dump conventional first names (see Amuse-bouche No. 1), the French remain obsessed with le nom de famille

Camille’s bobo (bourgeois-bohème) parents never got around to getting married. Déclarée (legally recognized) by her father, she bears his surname (not surnom — which means nickname). But seventeen, and status-conscious, Camille wanted the ultimate snobisme, a two-part name. Her mother’s nom de famille includes the preposition de (known as the particule). World-wide, les snobs are impressed by la particule. French snobs even distinguish between noblesse d’Empire, whose titles merely were bestowed by Napoleon, and ancien Régime nobles who somehow survived the Révolution. So Camille combined both her parents’ last names (which I have changed to protect the guilty). She’s now dite (called) Camille Bidule de Machin-Chouette (Thingamajig of Whatsherface). Not everyone is impressed. Bobos and hoi polloi treat double names like clumsy furniture: un nom à tiroir (a name with a drawer in it), à rallonge (with a table extension), à charnière (with a hinge), or qui se devisse (which can be unscrewed). She can always unscrew — It’s just a nom d’usage. Legally she’s still Camille Bidule.

Although it’s considered vulgar to ask what you do for a living, in France people want to know your family tree before they decide if they like you. In some circles, being just plain folks (petites gens – mysteriously feminine in this context) or du peuple (proletarian) is a source of pride. It’s particularly chic to say you come from paysans (peasants) or ouvriers, (workers) if you’re really an intellectuel/le.

Certain women will marry a man who is cruel, stupid, unethical and unemployed just for his aristocratic name. Rich American families like the Vanderbilts used to purchase titles for their daughters by marrying them to impoverished nobles. Less well-heeled social climbers, like Honoré de Balzac’s father, just slipped in la particule when they thought nobody was looking.

These days, you can’t casually adopt a new nom de famille. Too bad if you’re stuck with a moniker like Marc Deposay (homonym: marque déposée — trademark) , not to mention Poubelle (garbage can) or Guillotine, both named for their inventors. Luckily the death penalty has been abolished, and poubelles are no longer allowed in the streets for fear of terrorist bombs. All you find when you look for a place to park your gum is a lidded metal hoop with a green plastic bag attached.

Don’t think marriage can save a French woman from an unfortunate name. Her identity papers bear her maiden name all her life, adding the name of her husband along with details of her marital status. Thus Aude Wessel (homonym: eau de vaisselle — dishwater), when she marries, becomes Aude Wessel épouse (wife of) Fosse (drainage ditch). If the marriage dissolves, she is Aude Wessel divorcée Fosse, or if he kicks the bucket, she’s Aude Wessel veuve Fosse. If she remarries, she’s still Aude Wessel, now épouse Bidet.

You may envy les people (pronounce: laypeePOLE) — the folks you see in les médias, but a famous name is also a mixed blessing. Sara was once married to Pablo Picasso’s son Claude. “It was astonishing,” she said. “From the moment I became Sara Picasso, I ceased to exist. People only cared about my name.“ (Picasso himself complained people bought his paintings for the signature.) She was very young. The marriage didn’t last. Sara existed again. The name is still worth money. In 1998, Claude sold the signature to the French auto maker Citroën, and named their mid-sized model the “Xsara Picasso”. Sara assumes he named the car after her: ex-Sara Picasso!