Recently, I followed a discussion on a mailing list between several members regarding ‘dit names’. I had never heard of ‘dit names,’ also called compound surnames, and wanted to learn more.
The discussion began when a member wanted an explanation of ‘dit names.’ She had found family born in Quebec who may have used them. She believed Wallace may have been Ouellette dit Wallace and Rowe originally Rousseau dit Rowe.
From Linda Campbell’s experience with researching families in south west Nova Scotia, she believes ‘dit’ means ‘called’. She offers her ancestor’s name as an example. Vitaline Mius, daughter of Jean‑Cyrille Mius dit “Coco” would stand for Jean‑Cyrille Mius, who was called “Coco.”
Campbell, Heritage Coordinator for the Town and the Municipality of the District of Yarmouth, added, “it is well illustrated in the late Fr. Clarence d’Entremonts Acadian genealogies and his “History of Quinan.”
Member Wayne Neily wrote, “to be exact, the ‘dit’ here is not from ‘il dit’ (he says), but is the past participle ‘dit’, meaning ‘said’, or, in current English in this context, ‘called’.”
One member’s great-grandparents, Francis LaBossier dit Labershire and Celeste DeRosier dit Rose, used ‘dit names’. He suggested ‘dit’ was the equivalent as the English ‘aka’, or ‘also known as’.
This member also said ‘dit names’ were a way of Anglicizing French names.
However, Paul Lalonde disagrees. “Generally, ‘dit names’ have nothing to do with the anglicization of French names.” He wrote that, “Ouellet was often changed to Willet.”
As an example, Lalonde wrote, “one of the first Ouellets in Canada was Jean‑Baptiste Ouellet dit Depaincour. Here you see one of the most common origins of the ‘dit names’. Jean‑Baptiste Ouellet was from (or his ancestor was from) Paincour.”
“My family ancestor was Jean de Lalonde dit l’Espérance,” wrote Lalonde. “Here l’Éspérance was a nickname and he was from la Londe. Today there are people who share this ancestor, but have a family name of Lalonde, others go by l’Espérance. That is the same with most of the ‘dit names.’”
Lalonde adds, “these are long traditions and have nothing to do with the arrival of the French in the English-speaking areas.
One member said this happened in Nova Scotia with German immigrants. ‘Dit names’ were used to designate a place name, such as Daigle dit l’Allemand who was from Germany.
Unofficial ‘dit names’ were also common in non-French speaking areas to distinguish people with the same name.
For example, ‘dit names’ would have distinguished between ‘Big Dan MacDonald’ and ‘Red Dan MacDonald’. If both had wives named Ann, they might be known locally as ‘Annie Big Dan’ and ‘Annie Red Dan’.
The major difference between ‘dit names’ is those used as surnames were often carried on for generations and in some cases became the official surname.
One member suggested the ‘dit name’ was not always acquired by choice, but by English immigration officers shortening the name or spelling it phonetically.
Obviously, the use of ‘dit names’ makes it more difficult to trace family members who at times could use both names or one or the other.
For a partial list of ‘dit names’ and their equivalents, visit the Genealogy: Acadian and French-Canadian Style website (http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/lwjones/dit.htm) [NOTE: This link no longer works. For examples of ‘dit’ names, visit Acadian Genealogy Researchers and choose ‘dit’ Names in the drop-down menu under NAMES]
Diane Tibert is a writer based in central Nova Scotia. Her alter-ego is Diane Lynn McGyver. Her short story collection Nova Scotia – Life Near Water is now available.