When I was a young girl, my Pépère Fred told me that our family name wasn’t just “Belair”; it was “Belair dit Janvry”. I didn’t understand what the ‘dit’ part meant, or why there was a ‘Janvry’. After I started doing genealogy, I learned that Janvry was our original family name and that Belair was a second last name that eventually took over Janvry.
But what about the dit portion of our name? Dit names were a common occurrence among the French soldiers who came to Canada in the 1600s and 1700s. One explanation for dit names is that a soldier received a nickname or a nom de guerre when he enlisted in the French army. François Janvry dit Belair (my first Belair ancestor in Canada) possibly acquired Belair as his soldier’s nickname or alias. (There is evidence to suggest that François’ family name was originally Dufay, not Janvry. More research, especially in primary records in France, is needed to confirm this possibility.) Nicknames added another dimension to a soldier’s identity, and were based on such criteria as his place of origin, his trade, his military past or occupation, a personal trait, or even derived from a plant or an animal. In François’ case, it's possible that his nickname referred to a personal trait (‘bel air’ can be translated as a fine or nice attitude or demeanour).
Over the centuries, Janvry was spelled in a variety of ways. For example, on François’ marriage contract in 1761, his patronym and nickname were ‘Janevri dit Belair’, while at his burial in 1817, it was simply ‘Janvry’. Other spelling variations include (in alphabetical order) Desanvry, Dejanvry, Geanvrier, Genvre, Gnvry, Janvri, Janvrie, Janvris, Janvrise, Janvry, Jeanvery, Jeanvril, and Jeanvris.
Belair, on the other hand, underwent fewer spelling variations; examples include Belaire, Bellaire and Bélair. Pépère Fred maintained that we spelled our name ‘Belair’, without an accent aigu on the ‘e’, but I don’t know if he meant just us (his family) or for all his Belair ancestors and relatives. (Other Belair families lived in Timmins when we were there, but they spelled their name ‘Bélair’. Apparently, they weren’t related to us.) During my research, I discovered additional Belair families with different origins than ours. They are the Coulon dit Bélair, Delpêche dit Bélair, and Plessis dit Bélair families.
As a family name, ‘Janvry dit Belair’ became ‘Belair dit Janvry’, then simply ‘Belair’. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that ‘Belair dit Janvry’ or ‘Janvry’ ceased to be regularly used by François’ descendants. ‘Janvry’ as a family name no longer exists; we are now all ‘Belair’.