A tale of toponyms

In The Surnames of Cornwall I reported that by the 1600s around a third of people in Cornwall possessed what I termed ‘local’ surnames. This included surnames from a specific place (sometimes called locative surnames) and surnames from more general landscape features (such as Hill or Green).

On this website I pointed out that by the early 1500s Cornish language locative surnames were much more frequent in mid and west Cornwall than in the east. This contrasted with the picture in the early 1300s when locative second names (many would not have been hereditary at that point) were evenly spread from west to east.

Recently I returned to this topic, approaching it in a more organised way. I took all the surnames that I identified in The Surnames of Cornwall as definitely deriving from placenames and totted up their numbers in the Protestation Lists of 1641/42. The result is not as clear cut as I had expected.

While the proportion of such locative surnames varied considerably from a low of 2.5 per cent at Kilkhampton in the far north to over 13 per cent on the Lizard, most districts clustered around 5-7 per cent. There was little obvious pattern although the highest proportions of locative surnames tended to be found in the west and the lowest in the east, as the map below indicates.

This included surnames derived from all placenames – English language as well as Cornish language ones. In addition, many of the former are drawn from places that are not found in Cornwall but in Devon. More on Cornish surnames from Devonian places next week.

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