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Victor Hugo used a variety of unusual names in 'Les Miserables'. Lets look at some of the major characters. Were the names in Les Miserables, other than Jean and Marius, common in France at the time of the book's setting (~1815-1830) or writing (~1860s)?

  • Jean (Valjean) - One of the historically most common masculine surnames
  • Javert
  • Cosette - Her actual name was Euphrasie which is a reasonably well attested name.
  • Marius - The 34th most common masculine name in 1900, according to Behind the Names.
  • Fantine
  • Eponine
  • Enjolras
  • Gavroche - translates as newsboy?

For the names with no notes, a Google search did not find any useful instances of name use. I considered that they may be surnames, but then Marius (Pontmercy) and Eponine and Gavroche (Thenardier) at least already have a surname. Cosette and Fantine may also share a surname.

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    I don't believe "Fantine" is a proper name, that is no mother ever names a child "Fantine" it's more of a nickname. It comes from the same root as "infant". It basically means "babyish"... which being an orphan girl matches her character. – AllInOne Nov 6 '18 at 20:17
  • Marius being popular in 1900 places it after the book's publication :) Might as well use early 2000s Hermione data to justify Rowling's use in Harry Potter... 'twould be backwards. – Luke Sawczak Dec 15 '20 at 11:43
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Fantine

I don't believe "Fantine" is a proper name, that is no mother ever names a child "Fantine" it's more of a nickname. It comes from the same root as "infant". It basically means "babyish"... which being an orphan girl matches her character.

This name was used by Victor Hugo for the mother of Cosette in his novel 'Les Misérables' (1862). The name was given to her by a passerby who found the young orphan on the street. Hugo may have intended it to be a derivative of the French word enfant "child".

Source

Éponine

The name "Éponine" derives from the ancient Gaul Epponina, wife of Julius Sabinus, who rebelled against the Roman empire. She "became the symbol of great patriotism and virtue" by protecting her husband for many years and by choosing to die with him when he was finally captured.5 The name was quite common among both Republicans and Bonapartists in post-Revolutionary France. Her sister's name "Azelma" also derives from the name of a loyal wife who dies with her husband, the wife of Abdul-aziz, a north African warrior who fights Napoleon. Hugo explains both names as the product of Mme Thénadier's love of "stupid romances", melodramatic novels on exotic themes with exaggeratedly noble characters. Hugo says such names were typical of the period, when there was "an anarchy of baptismal names" as working-class people increasingly gave their children exotic or grandiose names, while the upper classes intentionally adopted lowly-sounding names.

Enjolras

A real, though not very common, surname from the Haute-Loire region. At first glance it looks like it could be derived from "enjôler," to charm or beguile, but its real root is the Occitan "enjeura," to terrify. A charming youth capable of being terrible...

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As you seem aware of, Jean is one of the most basic French names. But aside from these ones, these names are all very unusual. No one had ever been called that way before Hugo's Les Miserables and no one has ever been called that way since (if someone had it was probably an hommage to the book). That being said, these names do sound French, they must have been inspired by French words:

  • "enfantin", meaning childish, for Fantine
  • "chose", meaning thing, for Cosette
  • "ange", "enjeura" or "enjoler" as some else explained for Enjolras
  • "grand" (big) and "air" for Grantaire

But also real sonorities you find in French names:

  • "-ette" used to be added after a feminine name as a nickname, "Juliette", "Annette" , "Paulette", etc. Those are now names on their own, although they feel a bit old fashioned now (except for Juliette).
  • names ending in "-ine" are also common for feminine names, "Pauline", "Marine", "Caroline". So in that sense "Fantine" and "Eponine" do sound plausible even though Hugo probably invented them.
  • Javert just sounds like a real French name. The sonority works perfectly well, I don't have any better explanation.
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  • someone on the behindthename site (behindthename.com/name/enjolras/submitted) submited: "Derived from an Occitan surname, Enjeura, meaning "to terrify," although likely also a pun on French word ange, meaning "angel" -- making the character of Enjolras a "terrifying angel." " Maybe Enjeura was an old occitan surname? – Luiz Dec 14 '20 at 18:13

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