Locative Cornish surnames with a hint of mystery

While all three of the following surnames have their origin in placenames, or at least we assume they do, all three contain an element of mystery.

It’s been suggested that Penver, which looks immaculately Cornish, has its origin in Penmear or Penmeur, meaning a large hill-top. The only problem with this interpretation is that no-one can be found in the records with the name Penmear or similar. While we don’t know what Penver might mean, it originated to the west of St Austell Bay. Entries of Penvar are found in the parish registers at Mevagissey and St Ewe in the late 1600s and in 1641 Penvars were living in neighbouring Gorran. Here, there is a place called Penford Gate, pronounced Penver Gate in 1814. Unfortunately, there is no earlier spelling example. Moreover, intriguingly, there is a Penfold burial at Fowey as early as 1663. Which came first, Penford or Penver?

Permewan is an even more elusive name. Suggestions it came from Porthmewan founder on a lack of any supporting evidence. The surname first appeared at St Buryan in West Penwith, where a James Permewan was baptised in 1665. From there it spread eastwards, reaching as far as Redruth by 1861. But I can find no place called Permewan or anything similar in West Penwith and there is no earlier name that looks a likely candidate for re-spelling. Is it significant that the origin of Tremewan, a St Agnes name, is also shrouded in mystery?

Any theories on the two names above are welcome. Our third surname is more straightforward.

Pezzack is a surname now associated with Newlyn and Mousehole. Indeed, it first appeared there in the 1780s. However, although now largely confined to Mounts Bay, its history is more complicated and provides a fascinating example of migration. The word pezzack in Cornish means fly-infested or rotten/decayed, originally gwibesek, from gwebesen, middle Cornish for gnat or midge. The element appears in two placenames, Halabezack in Wendron and Carnpessack at St Keverne, places well to the east of Mounts Bay. In the 1520s we find folk called Halevesek at Wendron and Carnhesack or Cranepesack at St Keverne. The surname Halebesack had disappeared by the mid-1600s but Carnpesacks were found living at St Erth by the 1640s. From there they moved west to Madron in the 1710s and by the 1760s had ended up in Paul parish. At some point around the 1780s, the Carnpezzacks of Paul had decided their name was too long and shortened it to Pezzack.

2 thoughts on “Locative Cornish surnames with a hint of mystery

  1. Why would you want to accept a surname that means fly-infested, rotten, decayed? Seriously!

    I can imagine someone on the small side being affectionately nicknamed midge. Wonder if this connotation persisted?

    But seriously, rotten and decayed?

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  2. Permewan: ‘Lenited & unlenited forms after Tre-‘ (2017) by K George, for Signage Panel, suggested that initial letters of some well-known nouns (e.g. men (stone) in Tremayne, perhaps) or proper nouns (e.g. Modred, in Tremodrett, tho’ not in Carvedras nor Trevedras further west) may have been written unlenited by non-cornuphone medieval scribes. Hence the Celtic name borne by St Mewan (with church now over to Snozzel way) – then venerated in Cornwall, Brittany, Wales, England and France – perhaps unlenited in Tremewan (i.e. the m stayed m, not v). However, is/was there any place written *Tremewan or *Por(th)mewan?

    Trevowhan 1km E of Morvah church, 9km NNW of St Buryan, for example, has older forms (Treveuan 1283, Trevewen 1327, in JEB Gover’s list) suggested to be from tref + Ieuan – but might this be tre + (M)vewan? Given the (English) ecclesiastical setup at nearby St Buryan (as Glasney near Tremogh / pig farm) & the cachet of Mewan’s international cult, maybe might thence have been recorded lost *Por’mewan and/or *Tremewan?

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