What’s In a Name?
It was about 25 years ago when I and my father made a visit to Michigan Memorial Park in Flat Rock Michigan. It was a period of my life when I first became conscious that my heritage had something to tell me about myself. I had reflected for months before on what my father’s childhood had been like and what his relationship with his father had been. He did not want to talk about it very much. As we stood over the headstone for “Tuffield Reno” my Dad told me it was only after he had buried his father that he discovered that his father’s actual name was Théophile Renaud. He explained that his father could neither read nor write and as a result the immigration agent wrote what he thought he heard when he asked for his name. I suppose my father’s ignorance of his own father’s proper name could be forgiven given that Théophile, according to my father, did not speak much except when his brothers came over and then they spoke French.
However, even this revelation of my grandfather’s name is not exactly accurate. His full name was actually Joseph Théophile Renaud. Of course, it was quite common to name multiple children Joseph followed by a unique middle name which then became the moniker of distinction. Tuffield, as it turns out, was one of the better renderings as I have seen documents that transcribed the name as “Odile”, “Keolile” and my all-time favorite “Infield.”
Similarly the surname Renaud is also an innovation. While it is the most consistent rendering of the name once the family arrived in Canada, it is not the sole rendering. Depending on the document and the date, our ancestors have been identified as Renault, Regnaud and Regnault and likely some other variants I have yet to encounter. According to Linda Turner in her collection on the Lemire (La Mere) family, Guillaume also spelled his name Renaut and Renaugt. I have no idea what she based this on as I have yet to uncover anything with his signature on it. Any documentation referring to him is likely written by someone else such as a priest or notary. Turner does provide an image of what she purports to be Guillaume’s signature. It is not very legible and there are a number of what appear to be gratuitous symbols of unknown meaning at the end of the name. Unfortunately Turner does not provide the source for the signature. This same image is reproduced in Jan Gregoire Coombs’ entry on Guillaume in Our Tangled French Canadian Roots. Unfortunately Coombs book is very difficult to obtain but some of the pages are available for view on Google Books. A review of her sources does not provide any clues as to where she obtained the image of Guillaume’s signature. Despite these orthographic idiosyncrasies, the earliest documents in Canada refer to him as “Regnault” and this spelling is found in the Saint-Jouin-sur-Mer’s parish registers.
In addition to the inconsistent spelling there is also an inconsistent understanding of the meaning of the name. For example, the name has nothing to do with the French word for fox, “Reynard,” as my father once suggested might be the case. Of course this was based largely on the similar appearance between Renaud and Reynard. However, understanding that Renaud is derived from Regnault makes the apparent similarities less striking. Neither does the name Regnault have anything to do with military service. As Roland Jacob discusses in his Votre nom et son histoire:Les noms de famille au Québec, the “lt” ending does not equate with the abbreviation for the word “lieutenant.” Jacob dismisses these “false lieutenants” as an erroneous oral tradition surrounding certain Québecois families.
According to Dauzat’s Dictionnaire Étymologique des Noms de Famille et Prénoms de France and Morlet’s Les Noms de Personne sur le Territoire de L’Ancienne Gaule de VIe au XII Siècle the origins of the name Regnault and its variants are known to be Germanic, deriving from Ragin-wald (ragin-counsel; waldan-governor). It is possible the name has been in use well over 1,000 years and likely arose within the Frankish tribes on the borders of the Roman Empire. The Germanic naming convention was quickly adopted by the Gallo-Romans after the conquest of Gaul by the Frankish leader Clovis in the 5th Century as it unique name for each individual was simpler than the multiple name format of the Romans. The surname Regnault continues to persist in modern day Germany as well as France. In addition to its age, the name is well-represented in frequency in the annals of history and appears as one of the 25 most frequent patronyms in the 15th Century corpus of Normandy.
So does all of this mean that somewhere back in our history one of our ancestors was a wise counselor to a governor? Maybe. Does it suggest that our family is imbued with a characteristic wisdom? Probably not. Despite enticing advertisements by Ancestry.com and other genealogy companies that suggest the meaning of your last name can reveal something about our identity, it is a specious premise. It can, however, as I have noted above, reveal some interesting aspects of a family story such as my father’s ignorance of how to spell his father’s name. To me this suggests my father’s relationship with his father was marked by remoteness the cause of which requires further research.