Sometimes the surname dictionaries assure us that two similarly spelt names have entirely different origins. The older approach was based on seeking the earliest form of the name and then interpreting its meaning by reference to the languages of the time. This copied the methods of placename studies. However, sometimes the fluidity of surname spellings in former times and the work of surname researchers from the 1990s onwards shows that earlier explanations are just wrong. Moreover, even if origins were different surnames could fall together in their spelling. Surnames and their development can be a lot more complex than research on the name alone might suggest.
Let’s take the example of the two names Bawden and Bowden in Cornwall. These were present in relatively large numbers from the emergence of more comprehensive records in the 1500s. According to the surname dictionaries they have very different origins. Bawden is a patronym – from the Norman name Baldwin. Bowden is a toponym – from an English placename found in several places in Devon and east Cornwall.
In my The Surnames of Cornwall, after some hesitation I accepted this distinction. After creating the maps below of the distribution of these names in the 1500s I’m now even less certain this was the case even at that early date.
The distribution of the names Bawden, then spelt Bawden, Bawdyn or Bawdon, and Bowden, its second syllable also spelt with a variety of vowels, might instead suggest that the two names overlapped considerably. Indeed, almost half of the parishes in which one of the names was found also had examples of the other. More crucially, the large number of Bowdens found in the far west is the opposite of what we should expect from the location of the placename.
This suggests the difference on the ground may well be more about spelling preferences than separate origins. The two names appear to have been interchangeable with one spelling segueing into the other (and producing the shorter form Bodyn or Boden, which began to appear in the east in the 1560s). This process was haphazard, dependent on chance and the whims of clergymen and other clerks. The two names may well have had separate origins but by the 1500s this had already become extremely blurred.