Spelling variants and Cornish surnames: Cliffs and Curnows

Let’s catch up on a couple of surname queries, both of which involve spelling variants.

The first is the name Cliff. There is general agreement that this is a topographical name, one taken from a feature in the landscape. The classic surname dictionary by P.H.Reaney confidently proclaims that Cliff and Clift are both variants of the same name (which also gave rise to Cleave and Clive). The meaning in the medieval period was not necessarily a cliff by the sea but any slope or, more often, a river bank. On the other hand, other surname dictionaries have proposed that Clift was a separate surname derived not from the word ‘cliff’ but from ’cleft’, and applied to someone living by a crevice in a rock.

Does the early distribution of this name in Cornwall shed any light on this? From the scattered distribution of the surname Cliff, it looks as if the name had multiple origins. The number on or near coastal parishes might also suggest that, at least in Cornwall, the name was more often given to someone living near a cliff by the sea rather than a river bank or any old slope. The surname Clift appeared later, the first register entry taking place in 1608 with the baptism of Thomsin Clift at St Erth. A Clift in east Cornwall in 1625 at Landrake, a parish where Cliff had been present from at least 1598, may be evidence that Clift evolved from Cliff rather than being a separate name.

Our second surname – Curnow – is trickier. As most people know, this is the Cornish word for Cornwall, although usually spelt Kernow. Yet the surname was consistently spelt as Cornow in the 1500s. This may suggest the first vowel differed from that in the ‘Kernow’ found in the Cornish Ordinalia and the play Bewnans Meriasek, although Cornow is found alongside Kernow in another saint’s play Bewnans Ke. The presence of the surname in English-speaking east Cornwall in the 1500s also makes a Cornish-language origin more questionable. The Cornish language revivalist Robert Morton Nance felt it was more likely to have been a nickname derived from the Cornish word cornow (horns). However, that doesn’t explain its presence deep in the north of Cornwall, where it was also spelt Cornew. But might that spelling indicate another surname with a different derivation in that district?

In my The Surnames of Cornwall I rashly stated that the spelling Kernow or Kerno was never seen. I was wrong. In 1582 Margaret and Pascoe Kerno were buried at Newlyn East. Meanwhile, the spelling Curnow was beginning to make its entrance, first on the Lizard, at Mawgan in Meneage, in 1574.

It might seem illogical to give someone the surname Cornow (if it meant Cornwall) in Cornwall in order to distinguish them from others when almost everyone else also hailed from Cornwall. Nonetheless, if we look at the English surname Cornwall, we find it was evenly distributed in the 1500s across both west and east Cornwall. Perhaps Cornow was the Cornish language version of Cornwall after all, at least in mid and west Cornwall, with the Cornows/Cornews in the far east having a separate, at present unknown, origin.

One thought on “Spelling variants and Cornish surnames: Cliffs and Curnows

  1. I have ancestors called Curnow/ Curnew who lived in Redruth, St.Agnes and Porthleven during the 16 hundreds. People moved and married throughout the East and West of Cornwall.


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