The Beginning

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 (from John).

It is a misconception that a Williams family is less Cornish than say, Trevithick just because it doesn’t sound as Cornish.

Cornish Language

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).

Descriptive Names

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, hunter).
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).

Spelling Variations

Over the centuries the spelling of surnames have changed considerably; mainly phonetically.
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!

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