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An Opinion from a French Cousin

Father Gerard Robitaillie, Acting Pastor of Saint Amand Parish, Bailleul, France

The first issue of the Robitailleries newsletter was of great interest to me. But my day-to-day responsibilities are so heavy that they leave me no time for leisure. Finally, I find myself with a free evening, so I have time to share a few reflections with you.

1) First, my thoughts on the origin of the name.

I think that the hypothesis that the family name is of Italian origin is unlikely. It must be an Artesian name (i.e. from the Artois region). This is where the Robitailles emigrated from, some for Canada, as in the case of your ancestors, and others for Flanders, as my ancestors did. The most distant of my ancestors that I am aware of, JEAN ROBITAILLIE, who lived about 25 km from here, had to have been born around 1685. It is possible that he was a cousin or a nephew of the four brothers who established themselves in New France in 1670.

You will undoubtedly object that, in making this claim, I am confusing the Robitailles with the Robitaillies. However, I am persuaded that originally they were the same name and the same family. During the 1950s while I was making some modest research efforts in the civic registry to put together at least a part of the family tree, I learned that the clerks in those days (many of whom were priests because the churches maintained baptismal records; there were no civic records of births) wrote ROBETAILLE – ROBITAILLIE – ROBITAILLE depending upon what they thought they heard from the mouths of the persons making the declaration.

My ancestor, JEAN ROBITAILLIE, had 10 children. One of his children had his family name spelled one way; the second, in another; and the third, in yet another. Yet, what struck me, was that it each case where there was a person's signature (not too often, since in those days few people knew how to write) the name was always written as ROBITAILLIE.

Now, you know that there is a rule of linguistics that says the longer spellings of words are more ancient that the shorter forms. Language evolves along the path of least resistance: complicated and irregular forms are often replaced by simpler forms and by those that easier to pronounce.

In our case, the original spelling of the family name must have been ROBITAILLIE, but it was often shortened to ROBITAILLE. I had a colleague, Father Daniel ROBITAILLE, whose ancestors must have been relatives of mine. And, in my region of the country, there are ROBITAILLIEs, ROBITAILLEs, and even ROBITALs. The shorter forms have become permanent.

2) As to the meaning of the family name, I am still perplexed.

I have been told on several occasions that the family name might have been derived from ROBIN (a thief) in the language of the Middle Ages and that ROBE-TAILLE might have designated someone who "cut (taillait)," that is to say "pursued" or "caught" thieves. This derivation does not seem to be very well founded.

I have more faith in the derivation proposed by some genealogists that my cousin consulted. They said,

  • ROB: a fellow called ROBERT or ROBART, a German name
  • TAILLE or TAILLIE: a stand of unharvested trees, a fallow woods
  • ROBITAILLE or ROBITAILLIE: the woods belonging to Robert.

The entire northern region of France had been invaded long ago by the Franks and there are many family names of Germanic origin in the area, names of people and of places.

So there you have the bits of information I can give you, given the modest scope of the research I have been able to carry out.

I hope that this information will be of interest to you and I thank you again for your letter. Please accept my best wishes to you as a member of your "family."