A total of 1376 French naval ships and frigates were launched between 1661 and 1815, with 969 different names. (The study encompasses 862 of them.) Names might be either nouns or adjectives. By tradition ships-of-the-line were given masculine names and frigates feminine ones, Ships were more likely to be given proper names. Names were often mythological but rarely religious in reference. Four principal themes can be discerned: the sea itself, its navigation and dangers; war, the sovereign power, and geography.
1. Names relating to the sea
Unsurprisingly, names relating to the sea constituted a continuous theme: Marin and Pélican belonged to the 17th-century fleet; the first French ship to bear the name Océan was launched in 1756. Under Louis XIV ships were readily given names evoking their qualities and handling (Adroit, Ardent,Excellent, Léger, Prompt). These disappeared for ships of the line in the Regency but became common for frigates, reflecting their new prominence in naval tactics. Swiftness was evoked by names associated with flight (Oiseau, Hirondelle, Aigrette). Mythological names, with marine associations accounted for 145 vessels and were more or less bellicose according to period, among them; thus Neptune, Néréide, Nymphe, Amphitrite, Protée, Thétis, Jason and Argonaute. No less than six different vessels bore the name Trident. Another category related to the heavens (Lune, Etoile, Vénus, Astrée, Pléide) and the winds (Aquilon, Borée, Eole, Zéphir). Marine hazards could be evoked directly (Ecueil, Orage, Tourbillon) or by mythological reference (Sirène, Méduse); so too, names associated with chance and magic, whether the vagaries of weather or the fortunes of war (Destin, Fortune, Hasard, Circé, Médée, Magicienne, Fée).
2. Names relating to war
Fighting ships were naturally given names which evoked aggression, courage and power. Suitable animals - Aigle, Lion, Tigre and Dragon - were commonly chosen, again throughout the period; Faucon was a 17th-century ship, whereas Léopard and Panthère appeared for the first time in the 18th. Bellicose qualities - Brave, Conquérant, Foudroyant, Invincible, Terrible Tonnant, Puissant Redoubtable - and warlike mythical figures - Hercule, Achille, as well as Diane, Médée and Hermione - were again often chosen. The frequency of warlike references depended on the policy of the time. The resumption of shipbuilding in the Regency from 1719 to 1725 heralded mythological names such as Phénix, Ferme, Espérance and Solide which expressed the regime's aspiration towards peaceful reconstruction. On the other hand bellicose names increased after the Seven Years War as naval conflict escalated in importance; unsurprisingly such names are associated particularly with heavily-armed ships-of-the-line. The Republic favoured Roman war warriors such as Brutus, Cato, Trajan and Timoleon, or names which were straightforwardly agressive (Canonnière, Furieuse, Guerrière).
3. Names relating to sovereignty
These represented only 42 of the names studied, but constituted a continuous theme throughout the period. Under the Ancien régime, attributes of kingship were often chosen: Couronne Diadème, sceptre, Fleur de Lys. The fleet of Louis XIV boasted a Favori and a Courtisan. Royal names also featured: five vessels between 1666 and 1738 were called the Bourbon; there was also the Royal Dauphin and the Royal Louis and, for Louis XV, Le Bien Aimé. The birth of the duc de Bourgogne was marked by the renaming of a vessel under construction at Rochefort. Between 1703 and 1715 there was a Toulouse for the Admiral of France; under the Regency, a Duc d'Orléans for the Regent and an Elisabeth for his mother. As late as 1783 Les deux frères referred to Louis XVI's brothers who had financed the ship. The Royal orders of Saint-Michel and Saint-Esprit also furnished the names for half a dozen different vessels.
Comparatively few ships were named after individuals other than the royal family. It was not until 1786 that a naval heroes began to be honoured; Duquesne was the first, followed by Tourville, Jean Bart and Duguay-Trouin in 1787 and 1788. The Revolution honoured its martyrs - Marat, Barra, Viala, and favoured defenders of liberty Franklin, Guillaume Tell, Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
During the Revolution and the Empire the fleet expanded and lost vessels were constantly replaced, with 269 ships and frigates launched between 1791 and 1814. Ships changed their names rapidly, often up to five times. Over half the names of both ships and frigates were used for the first time in the period. Naturally in the Republic imposed its own political agenda:Monarque, Majestueux, Couronne gave way to Indivisible, Jacobin, Convention, Révolution, even Tyrannicide. The Etats de Bourgogne became the Montagne; Majestueux, became Républicain; Couronne, first Révolution, then Ça ira. Crowns and sceptres were temporarily replaced by the Cocarde and the Pique. Frigates included an Incorruptible and a Régénérée. (Sadly Napoleon soon reinstated the regal references, with the addition of the Impérial...)
4. Names relating to places and geographical features
Before 1671 twenty or so vessel were named after provinces or recently acquired territories. However, in Louis XIV's reorganised navy 65 out of 83 vessels were rebaptised. The names tied the navy more closely to the Crown, either by their direct association with royalty or by the replacement of references to private individuals and localities with more generic names. Geographical names were only reinstated after the Seven Years War when, at Choiseul's instigation, French regions and corps began to finance the building of particular ships.Eighteen such ships were built between 1761 and 1766, ten of which had names referring to their donors. A similar strategy was employed after the American War of Independence, giving rise to ships named Commerce de Bordeaux (1784), Commerce de Marseille (1783) and even Etats de Bourgogne (1786).
In the Imperial period geographical references returned but in a different spirit - they now largely commemorated Napoleon's land battles and annexed territories.
Acerra Martine. "La symbolique des noms de navires de guerre dans la marine française (1661-1815) Histoire, économie et société. 1997, 16(1) pp. 45-61.
For lists of the names:
Wikipedia.fr: Liste des vaisseaux français
Les états abrégés de la marine française (1669-1772)
See also: Highlights of the Musée de la Marine, Paris