Cornish surnames began
to emerge in the early Middle Ages, although Celtic and Norman landowners
or nobility had surnames dating back much earlier.
It wasn’t until the later Middle Ages that it became essential for
the common man to own a surname, and these were fully established throughout
Cornwall by the end of the 15th Century.
The most common type of surname in Cornwall are patronymics, which come
in many forms. The father’s name taken without alteration, eg. John
(son of) Richard, is the most basic.
An ‘s’ added, eg. John (of) Richards
(children), is more common; the Cornish version being to add an ‘o’.
eg. Bennetto (Benedict’s children); or a ‘y’.
eg. Pawley (Paul’s children).
The prefix ‘map’ (son of) was also used to change, for example,
Richard to Pritchard. Another aspect of patronymics used
was a diminutive or corruption of the father’s name, eg. Jenkin
It is a misconception that a Williams family is less
Cornish than say, Trevithick just because it doesn’t
sound as Cornish.
The more celebrated traditional Cornish surnames (Tre,
Pol and Pen) were taken from place names
and used prefixes to describe them.
For example Tre was the word used to describe a homestead, hence Trenoweth
(new homestead); Pol translated to pool, so from pol-glas (green or blue
pool) emerged Polglase; Pen (head or end) gave rise to
such names as Pengelly (pen-(k)gelly, end of copse).
Names were also used to describe the occupation of the head of the family
(and usually ensuing generations).
Smith is used universally, but in Cornwall the mother
tongue was also used. eg. Angove (an gof, the smith);
Dyer (tyor, thatcher); Helyer (helghyer,
Surnames were derived, too, from animals which the bearer made a living
hunting, eg. Bligh (blyth, wolf); or from those he kept,
eg. Coon (cun, dog).
Another category of surnames were derived from personal characteristics
or nicknames. eg. Coad (coth, old); Couch
(cough, red); Tallack (talek, big browed).
Over the centuries the spelling of surnames have changed considerably;
The main reason for this is that as recent as the late 19th Century many
people could neither read nor write, and at such church services as baptisms,
weddings and burials their names were recorded by the parson who wrote
it down as he heard it.
This is responsible for one man who lived in 19th Century St Teath to
be baptised as Thomas Crart, married as Thomas Crahart,
and be buried as Thomas Carhart!