Saturday, January 22, 2011

Surname Saturday - Le Bourhis

Genealogy rarely provides simple answers to the question of who our ancestors were. We want something that we can hold on to, something that changes the way we see ourselves. We often embrace part of our ancestry. We try some recipes, take a dance class or start learning a new language. At the same time, we ignore the complexity that is there. We may downplay other parts of our family's past. Even in those cases that seem most clear cut, you may find surprises.

These complexities are sometime found even in the names of our ancestors. For all of human history, people have been moving around and mixing. Evidence for this is written in to our DNA and often displayed in surnames. Most names cannot be simply described by phrases like "an English name" or "a Russian name". Sometimes, names will even combine elements from more than one language.

One such surname is that of my second great grandmother, Marie Eugénie Le Bourhis. Marie Eugénie was born in Nantes, France on August 26, 1879. Her parents were from the department of Côtes-du-Nord (now Côtes d'Armor). Her father was born in Plouguernével, where many generations of Le Bourhis had lived before him.

The origin of the name is complicated. The name in its current form is clearly French; it includes the French definite article Le "the" and the name follows French orthography (spelling conventions). The name itself, however, has its origin in the Breton language, the Celtic language of Brittany. The area these ancestors were from was Breton-speaking. Bourhis comes from the Breton word bourc'hiz ['burxis], which means "people who live in a small market town". The word bourc'h by itself is the word for "village" or "small market town". Notice the combination c-apostrophe-h. It is used to indicate a velar fricative like the German ch in Bach. Without the apostophy ch is pronounced like English sh.

There is a suffix -ad in Breton which is used to indicate an inhabitant of a place. For example, Brittany is Breizh and so breizhad is one way of referring to a person from Brittany. In the plural, -ad is replaced by -iz and so breizhiz means Bretons. Bourc'hiz follows this same pattern with the singular form bourc'had, and thus means "inhabitants of a small market town". Bourc'hiz can also have the meaning of "middle-class" or "bourgeois".

There is one further layer to this name. The Breton word for a small market town is a Germanic borrowing. This word is related to the -burg of Hamburg and the -bury of Kingsbury (discussed here). This borrowing occurred long ago, perhaps before the Bretons migrated to France from Great Britain. The same Anglo-Saxons invasions that brought this word may have also caused the migration.

So, when someone asks what kind of name Le Bourhis is, you can simply state that it is Franco-Germano-Celtic.


  1. Thank you for the excellent tracing of the name Le Bourhis. I also have this name in my family, but it transformed in very odd ways in French Canada. My ancestor came to Quebec without the "le" before Bourhis. By a couple of generations later, his descendants had settled in the little town at the parish of St-Edouard-de-Napierville. One priest who served for many years at that church always wrote the name as "Bourlice." Within a generation or so, it was "Boulrice." There are now as many spelling variations of this name in Northern NY as are possible phonetically. So, for instance, my great great grandmother was called "Marie Ezilda Bourlice" in her baptismal certificate. In the 1905 NY Census her parents, living with her, were called "Bulriss." She lies beneath a tombstone with the name "Bullres" engraved on it. Funny to think Bullres is cognate with "burgher!"

  2. It is fascinating to see how this name changed in Canada and the US. I am not sure why our French Canadian ancestors so mangled their surnames when they settled in the US; it makes it very difficult to track them back or figure out who is related.

    I have also noticed that there is a LeBourhis family that settled in Louisiana. So far I haven't figured out if any of these families are related.