How Cornish is your surname?

Young man blacksmith forging hot metal on the anvil in smithy.

The surname Angove is derived from an gof, meaning the smith - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Are you a Croggon or a Barragwaneth? Cornish Bard and historian Merv Davey takes us on a tour of Cornish names

The story of Cornish surnames is a fascinating one and far from limited to the old saying that 'by Tre, Pol and Pen, you shall know the Cornishmen'. In actual fact you will only know about one in 20 as Cornish scholar Dr Bernard Deacon points out in his new book The Surnames of Cornwall.
Today we take our family names for granted but bynaming is a relatively recent practice in western Europe. It probably had its origins in southern France in the 10th Century and slowly spread to northern Europe over the next few centuries. 

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Although second names started to be widely used and fixed in east Cornwall by the middle of the 14th century they were still very fluid in the west, where Cornish remained the vernacular language, until the 1500s. It is an interesting thought that most of our surnames originate from just a few generations back.

The convention is to organise surname origins into four broad groups, although there is much variation and overlap. Names derived from places or landscape features. Names derived from parents' given names (patronymics), which are the most numerous. Occupational names. Pet or nicknames. 

The Cornish language is represented across all four groups but particularly in names related to places and landscape features. Cornwall shares with Wales the propensity towards patronymics like Williams, Thomas and Richards.

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These were particularly common bynames in 15th century west Cornwall where the Cornish language still predominated. The delightful irony here is that the least Cornish sounding names are most likely to have immediate ancestors in the Cornish speaking world.

Tre, Pol and Pen are joined by Bos, Car, Ros and many other place name elements to form surnames and often have fairly obvious place name origins such as Tremain, meaning stone farm and Cardhew meaning black fort. Bray is a familiar Cornish surname, and it is easy to forget that it is the equivalent of the English name Hill. Laity stems from the Cornish for dairy (leti) and less immediately obvious is the wonderful name Buzzan which originated as Bosow meaning cottages or dwellings.

Three pieces of yellow leather drying in the sun in a traditional tannery in the city of Fez, Morocc

Right: If your family was in the tanning business you might be called Croggon - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

My favourite occupational name has to be Croggon which means skin or hide and is the equivalent of the English name Tanner. Many will remember Croggon’s, the traditional oak tannery in Grampound. The family firm dated back to 1712, when Grampound boasted several tanneries, and continued to trade until 2002. 

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A more common occupational name in Cornish is Angove which is derived from an gof meaning the smith. Myghal Joseph An Gof was, of course, the 15th century Cornish rebel and it is interesting that he is sometimes referred to simply as Myghal Joseph and sometimes “The Smith”. It is important to understand that in Cornwall a surname of, say, Trahair, does not mean that one’s ancestors were necessarily more Cornish than those with the English equivalent, Tailor. It is a matter of where and when the byname became fixed and if it was within an English or Cornish speaking community.

Barragwaneth is a beautifully Cornish sounding name and, courtesy of the Cornish Diaspora, also the name of a large hospital in Soweto, South Africa. It means wheaten bread and is likely to have been the nickname of someone with a notoriously refined taste or aspirations to higher status who spurned the barley bread staple of medieval Cornwall.

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The Cornish for red, 'rudh'  is reflected in the surname Rowse and the nickname for someone who was red haired or red faced. At the opposite end of the scale the name Eplett is unique to Cornwall despite the English sounding name and probably comes from a nickname applet meaning rosy cheeked.

Folklore is a law unto itself and its survival depends more upon people liking the story than any serious information it provides about the subject. Folkloric tradition has it that Spanish sounding names such as Bennetto, Jago, Colenso and Jose were descendants of shipwrecked sailors from the Spanish Armada.

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A slightly more sophisticated version has these names as relics of Celtic tribes that had travelled to Cornwall from what is now Spain in prehistoric times. Neither have any basis in fact. The 'O' in Bennetto is a personal name with the meaning 'from the family of Bennet', Jago is the Cornish version of James and Colenso is derived from the place name near St Hilary. Jose interestingly enough did originate from across the water but from Brittany and the Breton name Iodoc.

Cover of Bernard Deacon's new book which explores Cornish surnames

Bernard Deacon's new book explores Cornish surnames - Credit: Bernard Deacon'

Cornish surnames are a part of Cornwall’s story that deserve to be explored and better understood. We have visited the background of just a few examples in this month’s column. Bernard Deacon’s The Surnames of Cornwall takes us on a journey of how, where and why second names developed together with a comprehensive catalogue of examples.

The Surnames of Cornwall is published by CoSERG, Redruth, and is available in both paperback and Kindle editions. Find out more here

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