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Vidocq Bureau de Renseignements: What It Means

When VIDOCQ opened his office in 1833 he aptly named it Bureau de Renseignements. Some say the French words mean "office of information" in English. But, is Office of Information exactly right? Did Vidocq imply this in the context of his writings or business dealings? Let's quickly review our perspective on the language.

letter written by EF Vidocq in 1837
VIDOCQ letterhead from 1837

Vidocq's Name Background

Eugène-François Vidocq was born in 1775 in Arras, France. He was born François Eugène Vidocq, with his Christian name, François, as his first name, as this was the law and customs during his time. It wasn't until the late 1800s that this custom slowly changed. The hyphen in his name indicates that this is the case. Males had male Christian names and females had female Christian names. The variety was dismal, and therefore, many when by their middle name first.

The Internet is full of information on the early life of Vidocq, so we won't expand on that in this article. We are here to share information on the forming of his business name.

Bureau De Renseignemens

There were some variations over time to Vidocq's business name. When it started in 1833 it was simply: "E.F. Vidocq Bureau De Renseignemens". Over time he added words such as "Universal" and "In the Interest of Commerce", although all of those seem to have came and went depending on the documentation that one reviews and the year and location Vidocq was working from (his office).

Renseignemens vs. Renseignements

If you are a keen observer, and know something of the French language, you may see a difference to how the word "renseignements" was spelled early on. The letter "T" was not included. As with all languages, there are variations over time, and the word without the letter "T" was the old French language, which too began changing in the 1800s. Either way, we are speaking of the same word.

Bureau Meaning

Let's briefly touch on the meaning of bureau, as this is very simple to understand. It means "office". It is a French word that is used all over the English language, and is used in many instances of government offices, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigations.

What Does Renseignements Mean?

Renseignements is often misunderstood. The whole point to this article is to briefly elaborate on it's true meaning and likely the context that Monsieur Vidocq implied in his business.

Renseignements Is Specific Information

"Renseignements" is something you ask or receive when you want a piece of specific information on a specific subject. "Informations" (information in English) is less specific and is also more "passive" (you are not necessarily looking for this information), that this why news can be translated into "informations" but not into "renseignements".

Source: - someone who gets it right on the Internet

What The Internet Gets Wrong When Translating Bureau de Renseignements

The Internet gets a lot of things wrong. You have to dig deeper and understand context, especially in a matter of language translation from a byegone era.

There are accurate examples on the Internet of what the meaning is and many inaccurate, such as when "renseignements" is translated as "information", and as we've learned this is not correct.

Renseignements is specific information that one is looking for. It is not vague, nor is it broad. It would be like asking for food to eat. "Informations" is like asking for food; "renseignements" is asking for fruit; this is much more specific.

Could Renseignements Mean Intelligence?

Yes, renseignements could mean "intelligence", and today it is used in the French language to denote intelligence. However, when Vidocq started his business he was was making inquiries into the validity of business transactions, and the people associated with these transactions.

Renseignmen[t](s) (plural) was not likely to mean "intelligences". It was more likely to mean "inquiries" as this would be a more applicable use to the services Vidocq was offering to his commercial clientele.

Intelligence and investigations utilize many of the same skills and techniques. Both utilize inductive and deductive reasoning to reach conclusions, but the single biggest difference is likely to be the nature of those conclusions. An investigator must present facts as they are received and discovered, while avoiding making final assumptions concerning culpability, liability or fault. Intelligence is a product created through the process of collecting, collating, and analyzing data, for dissemination as usable information that typically assesses events, locations or adversaries, to allow the appropriate deployment of resources to reach a desired outcome.

Is this what it meant in Vidocq's time period? Perhaps to some degree, but even today, the understanding of what intelligence is can vary in various applications.

Renseignements is used today to denote intelligence gathered by French government and police authorities.

Vidocq Started The First Detective Branch For Paris Police Prior To Bureau de Renseignements

"The Sûreté nationale...the criminal investigative bureau of the Préfecture de police de Paris...Founded in 1812 by Eugène François Vidocq, who headed it until 1827, it was the inspiration for Scotland Yard, the FBI, and other departments of criminal investigation throughout the world. Vidocq was convinced that crime could not be controlled by then-current police methods, so he organized a special branch of the criminal division modelled on Napoleon's political police. The force was to work undercover and its early members consisted largely of reformed criminals. By 1820 – eight years after its formation – it had blossomed into a 30-man team of experts that had reduced the crime rate in Paris by 40%."

Why Inquiry or Inquiries is Likely The Likely Contextual Translation

When we consider what Vidocq started his business to do, then we can then come to the logical conclusion that "Inquiry/Inquiries" is the likely context in which the word "renseignements" was used. Vidocq, had previously run operations for the French police in his official capacity as a chief. However, when he went into private practice he said he had a "Hatred for scoundrels. Boundless devotion to commerce."

Vidocq was making inquiries. Intelligence could have had a role in some of his inquiries, but by in large he was an inquiry office. Gathering intelligence is to gather everything then allow decision makers to sort and sift that information for anything useful in their campaign.

However, what Vidocq did was open an office whereby a commercial business could come to him to recover money, stolen property; track down perpetrators of bad checks, fraud; and understand the financial standing of different people. He was even known to work on matters of infidelity as his business expanded. This is not intelligence. This is an investigation, or inquiry.

Inquiry Agent

Inquiry was a word used often during the 1800s. Even in the UK private detectives were also known as inquiry agents. Many still use this term in modern times.

It may seem that we are splitting hairs. But it is this author's belief that in delving deeper into understanding what was truly meant by the word "renseignements" then we can understand more about the world's first private detective.


We have to understand linguistics, context, and the time period to understand that Vidocq did not mean "Information Office". He most likely meant "Inquiries Office" when he used "Bureau de Renseignemens". When translating Renseignements it is clear that it is broad information and is not applicable to one making a request for specific information.

Furthermore, the renseignements does not mean intelligence, as Vidocq was very specific in his opening letter when he said:

"Commerce has long and strongly felt the necessity for a special establishment whose objective would be the procurement of information on false Merchants, that is to say swindlers who, helped by the experience of Bankers, Merchants and Commissioners, play on public confidence and daily make dupes of true commercial agents". So when one is asking for specific information as in this quote by Monsieur Vidocq, it is called an inquiry.

Intelligence is far too vague of a word that would no application in most of Vidocq's missions for the trade and commerce of his time. Intelligence is not the same as an investigation although they may have close relations. Vidocq was involved in specific inquiries, so specific, in fact, that he differentiated himself that it was for the interest of commerce. He did not position himself as a agency off on vague missions to gather information and bring it back to allow another to make sense of it. People wanted what Vidocq had –– namely the ability to find out information on specific people. This is due to the fact that he had run many missions for the French police and was successful at tracking fugitives and dealing with the day to criminal influence in Paris at the time.

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