Used originally as a term of derision, the derivation of the name Huguenot remains uncertain. Various theories have been promoted. The nickname may have been a French corruption of the German word Eidgenosse, meaning a Confederate, perhaps in combination with a reference to the religious leader and politician Besançon Hugues (died 1532). Geneva was John Calvin's adopted home and the center of the Calvinist movement. In Geneva, Hugues was the leader of the "Confederate Party," so called because it favoured an alliance between the city-state of Geneva and the Swiss Confederation. This theory of origin has support from the alleged fact that the label Huguenot was first applied in France to those conspirators (all of them aristocratic members of the Reformed Church) involved in the Amboise plot of 1560: a foiled attempt to transfer power in France from the influential House of Guise. The move would have had the side effect of fostering relations with the Swiss. Thus, Hugues plus Eidgenosse became Huguenot, a nickname associating the Protestant cause with some unpopular politics.
Like the first hypothesis, several others account for the name as being derived from German as well as French. O.I.A. Roche writes in his book The Days of the Upright, A History of the Huguenots that "Huguenot" is
"a combination of a Flemish and a German word. In the Flemish corner of France, Bible students who gathered in each other's houses to study secretly were called Huis Genooten ('housemates') while on the Swiss and German borders they were termed Eid Genossen, or 'oath fellows,' that is, persons bound to each other by an oath. Gallicized into 'Huguenot', often used deprecatingly, the word became, during two and a half centuries of terror and triumph, a badge of enduring honor and courage."
Some disagree with dual linguistic origins, arguing that for the word to have spread into common use in France, it must have originated in the French language. The "Hugues hypothesis" argues that the name can be accounted for by connection with Hugues Capet king of France, who reigned long before the Reform times. He was regarded by the Gallicans and Protestants as a noble man who respected people's dignity and lives. Frank Puaux suggests, with similar connotations, a clever pun on the old French word for a covenanter (a signatory to a contract). Janet Gray and other supporters of the theory suggest that the name huguenote would be roughly equivalent to little Hugos, or those who want Hugo.
In this last connection, the name could suggest the derogatory inference of superstitious worship; popular fancy held that Huguon, the gate of King Hugo, was haunted by the ghost of Le roi Huguet (regarded by Roman Catholics as an infamous scoundrel) and other spirits, who instead of being in purgatory came back to harm the living at night. It was in this place in Tours that the prétendus réformés ("these supposedly 'reformed'") habitually gathered at night, both for political purposes, and for prayer and singing the psalms. With similar scorn, some suggested the name was derived from les guenon de Hus (the monkeys or apes of Jan Hus). While this and the many other theories offer their own measure of plausibility, attesting at least to the wit of later partisans and historians, if not of the French people at the time of this term's origin, "no one of the several theories advanced has afforded satisfaction."
Reguier de la Plancha (d. 1560) in De l'Estat de France offers the following explanation as to the origin:
The origin of the name is curious; it is not from the German Eidegenossen as has been supposed. Reguier de la Plancha accounts for it as follows: — "The name huguenand was given to those of the religion during the affair of Amboyse, and they were to retail it ever since. I'll say a word about it to settle the doubts of those who have strayed in seeking its origin. The superstition of our ancestors, to within twenty or thirty years thereabouts, was such that in almost all the towns in the kingdom they had a notion that certain spirits underwent their Purgatory in this world after death, and that they went about the town during the night, striking and outraging many people whom they found in the streets. But the light of the Gospel has made them vanish, and teaches us that these spirits were street-strollers and ruffians. At Paris the spirit was called le moine bourré; at Orleans, le mulet odet; at Blois le loup garon; at Tours, le Roy Huguet; and so on in other places. Now, it happens that those whom they called Lutherans were at that time so narrowly watched during the day that they were forced to wait till night to assemble, for the purpose of praying to God, for preaching and receiving the Holy Sacrament; so that although they d'd frighten nor hurt anybody, the priests, through mockery, made them the successors of those spirits which roam the night; and thus that name being quite common in the mouth of the populace, to designate the evangelical huguenands in the country of Tourraine and Amboyse, it became in vogue after that enterprise."
The availability of the Bible in local (vernacular) languages was important to the spread of the Protestant movement and the development of the Reformed church in France, and the country had a long history of struggles with the papacy by the time the Protestant Reformation finally arrived. Around 1294, a French version of the Scriptures was prepared by the Roman Catholic priest, Guyard de Moulin. The first known translation of the Bible into one of France's regional languages Arpitan or Franco-Provençal, had been prepared by the 12th century pre-reformer, Peter Waldo (Pierre de Vaux). Long after the sect was suppressed by the Roman Catholic Church, the remaining Waldensians, now mostly in the Luberon region of France, sought to join William Farel, John Calvin and the Protestant Reformation, and Olivetan published a French Bible for them. A two-volume folio version of this translation appeared in Paris, in 1488. Many of those who emerged from secrecy at this time were slaughtered by Francis I in 1545 in the Massacre of Mérindol. Since Calvin lived from 1509 to 1564 and Olivetan was his nephew, it is unlikely that Olivetan's French translation of the bible (commissioned by the Waldensians) was published in Paris in 1488
Other predecessors of the Reformed church included the pro-reform and Gallican Roman Catholics, like Jacques Lefevre (c. 1455–1536). The Gallicans briefly achieved independence for the French church, on the principle that the religion of France could not be controlled by the Bishop of Rome, a foreign power. In the time of the Protestant Reformation, Lefevre, a professor at the University of Paris, prepared the way for the rapid dissemination of Lutheran ideas in France with the publication of his French translation of the New Testament in 1523, followed by the whole Bible in the French language, in 1528. William Farel was a student of Lefevre who went on to become a leader of the Swiss Reformation, establishing a Protestant government in Geneva. Jean Cauvin (John Calvin), another student at the University of Paris, also converted to Protestantism. The French Confession of 1559 shows a decidedly Calvinistic influence. Sometime between 1550 and 1580, members of the Reformed church in France came to be commonly known as Huguenots.
Above all, Huguenots became known for their harsh criticisms of doctrine and worship in the Catholic Church from which they had broken away, in particular the sacramental rituals of the Church and what they viewed as an obsession with death and the dead. They believed the ritual, images, saints, pilgrimages, prayers, and hierarchy of the Catholic Church did not help anyone toward redemption. They saw Christian life as something to be expressed as a life of simple faith in God, relying upon God for salvation, and not upon the Church's sacraments or rituals, while obeying Biblical law.
Like other religious reformers of the time, they felt that the Catholic Church needed radical cleansing of its impurities, and that the Pope ruled the Church as if it was a worldly kingdom, which sat in mocking tyranny over the things of God, and was ultimately doomed. Rhetoric like this became fiercer as events unfolded, and eventually stirred up a reaction in the Catholic establishment.
The Catholic Church in France opposed the Huguenots, and there were incidents of attacks on Huguenot preachers and congregants as they attempted to meet for worship. The height of this persecution was the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre. The Huguenots, retaliating against the French Catholics, frequently took up arms, even forcibly taking a few Catholic cities. Many Catholic monuments and shrines were destroyed in this action, a result of the Huguenots' iconoclasm.