Parisian Living

Having a French Name Doesn’t Make You French

by Yvonne Shao

HiP Paris Blog on why having a French name doesn't make you French

My mother loved French names, so she decided to call her daughters Suzanne and Yvonne. Suzanne is a normal name in English-speaking places, but Yvonne is pretty rare. I never liked my full name: Yvonne Lynn Hazelton. It was clunky and unmusical, full of buzzy consonants and bad rhythm. Especially the Yvonne part: nobody could spell it; nobody could pronounce it. Grade-school loudmouths called me Avon, as if makeup were a ridiculous thing to share a name with. In fourth grade, I went by Lynn in an effort to shed the bulky Yvonne, but Lynn felt more like a syllable than a name, so I reverted back to my default Yvonne in fifth grade. All the other girls had gentle, flowery names like Jennifer and Michelle and Shannon and Lea Ann. I was She Who Could Not Be Pronounced.

HiP Paris Blog on why having a French name doesn't make you French

Top images: Gijs Coolen / Josh Edgoose. Above image: Palmyre Roigt.

Then I married a Chinese guy and became Yvonne Shao. Now I was a double mystery—why did a WASP like me have a French-Chinese combo name? Store clerks asked for my picture ID when I used my credit card, as if I had stolen some nice Chinese lady’s identity. Turned out nobody could pronounce Shao either—Shan? Chow? Shaw? It just got worse. Not only that, there was already an Yvonne in the family, my husband’s little niece. To avoid confusion, the family called me Big Yvonne. Not flattering. The kids called me Auntie Yvonne, which wasn’t much better.

HiP Paris Blog on why having a French name doesn't make you French

Tim Wright

In coffee shops, when I said Yvonne, they’d write Evelyn, Ivan, Evan, or Irving on the cup. I started borrowing my husband’s name and telling them I was Sam, which did make my coffee procurement easier. It wasn’t lying; it was community service.

 

When we got the idea to move to France, I thought my problems were over. Yvonne is a French name! Every French teacher I’d ever had gasped in delight on the first day of class, thinking some true Gallic heritage had manifested in their class with my presence. People had been asking me if I was French for as long as I could remember, so I pictured myself enfolded into French society, welcomed as a long-lost daughter, among my own people at last. They’d look at me knowingly, recognizing one of their own. Maybe they’d even confuse me with all the other Yvonnes they already knew! I’d be home.

HiP Paris Blog on why having a French name doesn't make you French

Josh Edgoose

Then I got to France, and that didn’t happen. Yvonne seemed lost on them: nobody could spell it; nobody could pronounce it. I had to show my ID if they needed to write my name down. There were no welcoming smiles, no looks of connection. I was confused and disappointed.

HiP Paris Blog on why having a French name doesn't make you French

HiP Paris Blog on why having a French name doesn't make you French

Top images: Jean Marie Heidinger / Esther Driehaus. Above image: Tetiana Shevereva.

One day I asked a French friend why this was so and learned the awful truth: Yvonne is an old-lady name. Like Myrtle. Or Edith. Or Gertrude. Some names recycle themselves—all the Lucys I know are over 70 or under 15, the Florences over 90 or under 2. In France, though, Yvonne’s popularity peaked in 1915 and never came back. But that’s not the worst of it. The last famous Yvonne was Charles de Gaulle’s wife, and she was extremely controversial. She was very conservative and when France was going through mid-century growing pains and trying to modernize itself, she loudly objected to immorality like sex and nudity on TV and in movies. She even tried to outlaw miniskirts. All the old people that liked her are dead now and everybody that’s left thinks she was a stuffy old lady. They called her Aunt Yvonne.

HiP Paris Blog on why having a French name doesn't make you French

Henrik Berger Jørgensen

So there. When I breezed into France, proclaiming “Je m’appelle Yvonne,” it didn’t mean to the French what it meant to me. I heard, “Here’s your long-lost cousin, ready to party!” The French were more “Merde. That old lady’s back.”

But, you know, France, maybe you should reconsider. Miniskirts aren’t outlawed, but they’re out of style. The only women you see in France in miniskirts are British.

HiP Paris Blog on why having a French name doesn't make you French

Pete Bellis

So maybe Yvonne got one thing right? Come on, France, the time’s they are a-changing and this Auntie Yvonne is ready. Give her another chance, okay?

Related Links

  • Check out Yvonne’s previous article about learning the art of la bise.
  • Read about living vs making a life in Paris.
  • For France’s most popular baby names in 2018, head to The Local.

Written by Yvonne Shao for HiP Paris. Looking for a fabulous vacation rental in Paris, London, Provence, Tuscany, Umbria or Liguria? Check out Haven In.

Written By

Yvonne Shao

Yvonne Shao is an American writer living in Paris. She blogs at Escaping the Empty Nest. View Website

10 comments on “Having a French Name Doesn’t Make You French

right on Auntie Yvonne

I’m right there with you… Yvonne Long.

This article gave me a much needed laugh outloud moment!!

Jeananne Hollenback

I have experienced the same my entire life. Even family members can’t pronounce my name or understand that it is one name, not Jean Anne! The coffee shop scenario, I just say “Jean” and it is always spelled – Gene, a typical male spelling. I love the name Yvonne. I say, embrace it! Bring a lovely new youthful spirit to her 🙂

A gorgeous collection of photos as always!!

Chantalle Millman

Ha! LOVED this article. My name is Chantalle – yes with the additional L & E. I am much older so growing up there were very few American Chantals, like today, with all the different spellings. Anyway, when I lived in Paris in the late 80’s people just assumed I was French because of the name, which was great – until they heard my butchered accent. My French boyfriend at the time, let me know that my name, Chantal was also an old lady name, like Mildred.

I love Chantalle. It’s coming back! -Erica
PS Try having the name Erica in France. A whole other can of worms. They CAN NOT pronounce it. I have to say RIK (French pronunciation) and then you know, like Eric with an A. Aie.

Your article cracked me up! That’s hilarious our name is an old lady name in France – I had no idea! I’m named after my grandmother Yvonne, who was born in 1901. My mother is a devout francophile, yet she is 100% Belgian. I had the same experience growing up with no one able to pronounce my name and everyone thinking I was French descent. What I hate is when they pronounce the Y in my name and it sounds like Yuh-vahn. How annoying!

Lol I have the opposite problem here, because my entire name is French, and people assume I’m native and speak at a pace worthy of a timed event. But I’ve had no negative reaction to “Yvonne” especially after I adjusted my pronunciation to how it’s commonly pronounced in France; in fact the reaction is often one of delight. Vive les Yvonnes!

It appears there are many! 🙂

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