Watch out! French first names that may mislead you

Written by Diane on. Posted in France, on everything else

french first names for guy or girl

Are you a man or a woman? Does your first name reflect that?

Some first names are really straightforward and you know right away upon hearing the name if the person is a guy or a girl. Let’s take Diane, for example. I guess a male Diane is out there somewhere but 99.9% of the Dianes walking around are female. And Thomas is pretty much always male. But it’s not always so straightforward in French. A handful of French first names work for both sexes and I’m going to tell you which ones to watch out for….

Let’s go!

French first names that work for men and women

I have a friend who works for a company based in France. She often emails her French colleagues for business-related requests but one day, her colleague Dominique had to call her to set something up. Email just wouldn’t suffice. So my friend answered the phone and was taken aback when Dominique turned out to be a man. For months my friend had pictured a female Dominique in her head and they both got quite a kick out of her mix-up. Up until I came to France, Dominique sounded like a girl’s name to me. Like Monique. A guy would be called Dominic in the US, right? A NICK not a NEEK at the end. But not so in France.

french-names-male-or-female

I think French names sound pretty cool but they can really mess with a foreigner.

Here are a bunch of French first names that are for both sexes. They’re pronounced exactly the same. In French, if you’re just speaking to someone about a friend or family member and you hear the name (but don’t see it written, which helps sometimes), there’s usually context in the conversation to help you figure out if someone is talking about a man or a women — like “ma collègue Dominique.” Ma is feminine so a French speaker would know that in this scenario that Dominique is a woman. For a man, they’d say “mon collègue.” But sometimes there’s no context and you don’t see the name written out.

Let’s take a look at some French first names that are pronounced the same way for both sexes (male // female):

Daniel/Danielle (Tom has trouble differentiating between these two in English. In French, they are pronounced exactly the same)

Dominique for both men and women

Emmanuel // Emmanuelle

Frédéric // Frédérique 

Gwenaël //  Gwenaëlle

Joël // Joëlle

Marcel // Marcelle

Michel // Michèle

Pascal // Pascale

René // Renée

NOTE: Usually the female version of the name has an “e” or “le” at the end, so if you see it written, that’s will tell you if the person is male or female.

When French first names trick you

As an American, some French first names might trick you into thinking the person is of the opposite sex. Take note of these French first names:

  • Laurence is a woman. (I thought this was a guy’s name, like Lawrence. Nope!)
  • Yves is a guy (pronounced like Eve in English, totally thought this was a girl.)
  • Loïs (pronounced low-ees, is a guy’s name.)

And a total aside about names, I recently heard the French name Victoire and I think I want to change my name to Victoire. Sounds super cool to me. But then again I like the name Nicole and Tom has informed me that it’s for old ladies. Oh well.

In English, Leslie and Avery come to mind as first names that work for both sexes. What other English or French first names work for both sexes or have surprised you?

Ever get into a sticky situation over French first names or names in general?

NOTE: In France, if you ask someone their name (nom) they’re going to tell you their last name. If you want to know their first name it’s called a prénom.

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Comments (29)

  • Lynn

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    My husband’s grandparents were Paul and Paule. And in our neighborhood there is a couple — Laurent and Laurence.

    I get confused when people use nicknames – for a long time whenever our friend mentioned “Manu” I thought he was referring to the neighborhood butcher (Emmanuel, I suppose) until I realized he was actually going away for the weekend with his girlfriend Emmanuelle…

    Are the prenoms Emmanuel and Emmanuelle (and others ending in el/elle) really pronounced the same? I would think there would be more emphasis on the female ending since there are double consonants.
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    • Diane

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      Oh man, so hard to know who everyone is talking about (especially in English where articles don’t have a gender) in the case of Paul and Paule.

      The good thing in France is that nicknames aren’t as common as they are in the US although like you said, Manu is one that’s pretty popular. I use a nickname with my husband, Tom, but his name is Thomas. He is Thomas to his coworkers. His dad is Alain and no one calls him Al. My dad is Martin and he’s known to everyone pretty much as Marty in the US but if he were French, he’d be Martin.

      And yes, Emmanuel and Emmanuelle are pronounced exactly the same. No difference at all (source: checked with 3 different French people). 😉

      Reply

      • Lynn

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        I hear a lot of nicknames ending in “oo”, like Valoo, Gilloo, Lisoo, Manu.

        I did confirm with friends last night that Emmanuel/elle are pronounced the same even if Fabien/enne aren’t. Guess I’ll never understand but I’ll just comply 🙂
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      • Vincent

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        About Michel/Michelle and so on : I was born in the south of France and the south accent is really different : ending “e” is pronounced and there is no confusion between all these “prénoms”.

        Reply

        • Diane

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          You pronounce Michel and Michelle differently in the south of France? Tell me more!

          Reply

      • Yveline Del Villar

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        Martin is masculine in English but pronounced in English sounds like the feminine in french “Martine”. The nickname “Marty” sound more féminin for me. I guess the “ee” sound is more féminin than the “o” sound. Nickname for boys will be ending in “o” in French like “Pierrot” for Pierre, “Marco” for Marc etc

        When we give a nickname it’s not automatically to shorten the long name. Some times the nickname is double:
        Gerard (Gerald) is not Gerry but Gégé,
        André (Andrew) is not Andy but Dédé
        Christine will be “Kiki” Camille and Micheline are often “Mimi” same as Michelle who is a girl but Michel the boy will be “Michou”. We like the ending in “ou” (sound like “lo” in English for boys!

        My Mom was Danièle like her dad Daniel. They used to call her “Dany”, and my grand father was sometimes called “Dano” (by my grd-Ma when they were dating and later). We do pronounce both the same way and I still cannot get the correct prononciation for the boys I have to apologize to my “Daniel” student when I call him by the “feminie”version.

        I found Cameron a very masculin name, even if I see the very féminin Cameron Diaz! And Leslie is more girly for me. Also Jessie!!!
        I always thought that “Clarence” was for girl. Same for “Lawrencee”! Maybe it’s because “ma cousine” is Laurence” et “mon cousin” is “Laurent”. (Same with the word “cousin” et “cousine” we mark the difference). We say “Laurent d’Arabie”
        The short version “Sam” is it for Samantha or for Samuel? And Sammy is it more girly or for a boy?

        Reply

    • Diane

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      Glad you enjoyed it 😉

      Reply

  • Stella

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    For the name that are pronounce the same you also have Noël / Noëlle
    These names are also tricky if you’re French! It happened to me so many time to think someone was a man and turn out to be a woman or the contrary!
    I would not know that Loïs is a male name, I would have said a female name, you see!
    But it Happens to be the same for us Frenchie with english names, I can’t recall one right now, but I know it happened to me too.
    For me the worst is South African names (I’ve got family there) and they have very unusual names for Europeans! You can never know if it’s for a male or a female!

    Reply

    • Diane

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      Oh yes, good addition! I’m happy to hear that names sometimes surprise the French too. There are quite a few that work for both sexes! Tom said Lois is not super common, but yup, a man!

      I’ve heard some Norwegian names that have left me totally confused. No clue at all if it’s a guy or girl!

      Reply

        • Diane

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          Yah I’d think Ola was a female name. How do you say that? oh-la like it looks?

          Reply

  • Aurore

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    There’s André // Andrée too! But Dominique is definitely the worst, it’s just impossible to know which gender it is!

    Reply

  • Den Nation

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    The name that really surprised me was Camille. I never knew that men could have that name as well.

    Reply

    • Diane

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      I had no idea either. I’ve never met a male Camille. I wonder if it’s an older generation thing? Thanks for pointing that one out!

      Reply

      • Lynn

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        We’ve had 2 contractors at work named Camille – both male and both young! (the hardest part for me is forcing myself not to pronounce it the American way!)
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        • Diane

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          Cool, I’ve never met a Camille, male or female, so will have to listen for that one!

          Reply

  • Marianne

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    I’ve noticed so many mens names that sound like they should be a woman’s name! Or they just dont make sense in my registrar:
    Jean-Marie, Jean-Francois, Francois, Emmanuel, Pascal, Dominique… to name a few. Also I know a woman named Frederique but when I first heard the name she was referred to as “Jean-Marie et Frederique…” and I definitely thought it was two men who were coming to dinner.
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    Reply

    • Diane

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      Hahha yeah I can definitely see how you’d think they were two men. I would have thought the same thing! The “marie” part of a man’s name still seems really bizarre to me.

      Reply

  • Karine

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    Camille and Claude are also both for man and woman.
    Camille is 80% for a woman but some man have this name too. And Claude is the opposite, 80% for man and some woman have this name 🙂
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    Reply

    • Diane

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      Just read that Camille can be a man’s name from another commenter but I had no idea about Claude. It’s spelled the same for a man and a woman? I’ll have to watch out for that! Thanks for pointing it out

      Reply

  • k_sam

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    What a great post! Reminds me of all the mistakes I made right after moving here. For my first job, I had been corresponding with Laurence for a while, only to discover that Laurence was a tiny French woman (and then I felt embarrassed too about all the emails I had written as if she were a man).

    It also happened with my first doctor’s appointment. I didn’t really speak French at that point, and I wanted to get a prescription for birth control, so I went through the phone book and very carefully picked out (what I thought) was a woman’s name. I had the surprise of my life when Gwenael turned out to be a 60 year old French man. It sure made for a lot of awkward pantomiming during that first visit!

    Reply

    • Diane

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      The name Laurence really is a tricky one. I had no idea Laurence was a woman’s name until Tom started speaking about his coworker and kept saying “ma” collegue. I’m like it’s a girl???

      I would have been mortified at the doctor. You went out of your way to get a female doctor and I can only imagine your surprise when you realized it was a man. Ahhhh, so embarrassing. Tom’s cousin is Gwenaelle and just met a male Gwenael at the gym who is a 17yo guy who speaks English (only person I’ve met who has passable English) and I just call him Gwen. Glad you enjoyed the post!

      Reply

  • Cosette

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    Great post. I’ve never given this much thought. Growing up in a Hispanic community, I’ve known Noels and Noelles, Michels and Michelles, and a numer of Jean-Somethings (all male). I think we’re seeing more gender neutral names in the US – Joss, Dakota, Phoenix, Casey, Harley, Tatum, Quinn, Taylor, Cameron, Morgan.
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    • Diane

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      All excellent additions! Do you say the male/female versions of the names the same way in Spanish like you do in French?

      Reply

  • Dana

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    Fun post!

    Dana is actually a gender neutral name. I know two men called ‘Dana’ and quite a few females… interesting because I thought ‘Dana’ was quite unique.

    Other neutral names in English– Jordan, Taylor,
    Jo(e), Shawn, Jamie, Morgan, Peyton, Alex, Chris, Pat

    Reply

  • Frederic

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    French names are in most cases gender-specific, but the differentiation is often absent in spoken language, as the pronounciation remains the same for both versions.
    I commonly face such situations, when I have no clue whether it’s a male or female name, I do like you said above, wait to get a hint from the context. It’s normal however, to directly ask your interlocuter in case you still have no idea. It’s not considered rude or anything like that, especially in informal discussions.

    Reply

  • Steve

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    “I love the smell of napalm in the morning. … It smells like, Victoire!”

    Reply

  • Charlotte

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    Morgan is, in fact a Welsh male name. The female version is Morgana similarly Gwyn (m) would be Gwyneth and Glyn (m) Glynys (f). Welsh female derivatives always sound different. English gender coupled names are Beverly (m) Beverley (f). Leslie (m) Lesley (f). Marion (same spelling m & f). Andrew (m) Andrea (f). Thomas (m) Thomasina (f) George (m) Georgina (f).
    Many of the names mentioned above are diminutives; Jo for example as a female name is the diminutive of Josephine (f) from Joseph (m). Shawn is in fact a corruptive of the Irish Sean or Seaghan its nearest in English John or Sion (pronounce Shwun) in Welsh. This is a definite male name, the female would be Seanead, the female version of Sion is Sian (pronounce Sharn)

    Reply

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