Original source: Cornwall Calling
5 ways to find out what your Cornish surname means
From Trelawny to Pengelly, we all know a Cornish surname when we see one. But what do they mean? And where do they come from? Find out with our guide.
How Cornish surnames developed
Until the Middle Ages, there wasn’t much use for surnames. People tended to live in small farms and settlements and knew their neighbours by first name only. As communities became larger – and room for confusion grew – a surname became increasingly necessary.
In Cornwall, as everywhere, surnames describe a characteristic of a person. These characteristics are mostly covered in the categories below.
1) Like father, like son or daughter – patronyms
At its simplest, a patronym takes the father’s name as it is – for instance Gordon Richard would suggest ‘Gordon the son of Richard’. Sometimes an s is added for possession – ie Demelza Richards suggests ‘Demelza, from Richard’s children’. In the Cornish language, an o (and sometimes a y) is added for possession. Therefore Bennetto would suggest Bennett’s, or Benedict’s, children; and Clemo Clement’s children.
2) A sense of place – geographical names
Sometimes it seems like half of Cornwall (and plenty more people from the diaspora) have surnames beginning Tre, Pen, Pol, or Car. These ‘proper Cornish’ names are used to describe types of place. In the Cornish language, tre describes a homestead; pen means head or end; pol means pool; and car comes from either carn, meaning ancient tomb or rockpile, or ker, a fortification. Menadue comes from menethu-du, which means, rather atmospherically, dark hill.
3) Trade marked – surnames by occupation
Just as Cooper in English refers to a barrel-maker, so many Cornish names come from their owner’s trade. Dyer comes from tyor meaning thatcher; Hellyer is from helgher meaning hunter; and Angove is from an gof, meaning the smith. People were also named according to the animals they kept for their trade, for instance Bligh from blydh, or wolf.
Some names come from a direct description of a person. And like the best nicknames, they’re short, pithy and very direct. Step up Mr or Mrs Coad – your name comes from coth, or old! Gwynn comes from the Cornish gwyn meaning white. Bassett may come from bassya, meaning short in stature.
Ms Teague, meanwhile, can bask in the fact her name from the Cornish tek, or teg, meaning fair or beautiful!
5) The Kernow connection – names that mean ‘Cornwall’
A Cornishman outside the county might be given the surname ‘Cornish’, to denote his origin. Other names suggesting a Cornish origin include (perhaps unsurprisingly) Cornwall, Cornwell, Curnow, Kernow and Cornwallis.
Want to investigate further? Take a look at Jim Thompson’s superb A-Z of Cornish Surnames (be warned, it’s addictive!) and Graham Owen’s excellent Cornish Surnames.
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