Classifying surnames

How might we classify surnames? Traditionally, surnames have been divided into four broad groups. The first, and possibly the oldest, of these are names derived from places, toponymic or local names. Often, this class of names is then subdivided into those names that were taken from an actual place name (locative names) and those that were derived from a more general landscape feature. The first of these is often the easiest to identify and provides us in Cornwall with our Tre/Pol/Pen type names, not forgetting Bos/Car/Ros and many others. The second sub-class of local surname include those that were given to someone because they lived at or near a particular landscape feature. Thus in English we have Hill, Bridge, Wood, Down and the like. These topographical names were particularly common for some reason in Sussex, one of the earliest English counties in which people adopted surnames.

However, there are two problems with local names. First, it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish between a general landscape feature and a specific place. Take the name Bray. Did this originate as a topographical byname for someone living at or near a hill? (Not on a slope or hillside which was meneth or mena in Cornish, but a distinct rounded hill.) Or does it stem from one of the five specific places in Cornwall called Bray or Brea, not to mention a few places in Devon with this name as well? Because of this difficulty Oliver Padel has argued that the distinction between locative and topographical surnames in Cornwall is unhelpful. The second problem is that, as with Bray, there’s often more than one place sharing the same place name. It’s been established that only 40% of English place names are unique. The proportion of unique Cornish place names may be a bit higher than that, but if you’re called Penrose, which of the at least 11 places named Penros were your distant ancestors named after?

Which of the 11 places called Penrose do Penroses hail from originally?
Which of the 11 places called Penrose do Penroses hail from originally?

The largest class of surnames are those derived from the father’s, or occasionally the mother’s, given name. These are names like Williams, Roberts, Richards, Rogers, Geoffrey etc. However, during the medieval period the number of given names available to choose from had shrunk. As a result Norman names such as William, Robert, Richard, Roger or Biblical names such as John, James and Thomas accounting for the vast majority of men. For example in Madron in 1327 four male names – William, Robert, Thomas and David accounted for half the 52 taxpayers in the parish. A similar reduction in the number of female names in use had also occurred, the most common female names generally at this time being Agnes, Alice, Joan and Margaret. Incidentally, fine old Cornish language given names, common in the tenth century, such as Bleidiud (wolf-like), Brenci (raven-dog) or Iarnwallon (brave iron) had long been discarded in favour of the fashion for Norman names. With the exception of Madoc, which appeared as a first name in fourteenth century Madron.

The rather limited stock of first names to choose from didn’t prove to be too great a hindrance, given people’s ingenuity in coming up with new versions of patronymic names. This occurred in three main ways. First, some basic names, especially those beginning with R-, were the basis for rhyming pet names. In this way Richard or the vernacular Rick became not just Hitch- and Hick- but Ditch- and Dick-. Similarly Robert was the origin of names beginning Hob- and Dob-, while Roger gave us Hodge and Dodge or Doidge. In addition, these and other names were often given a diminutive suffix, such as -cock, -kin, -en/-yn or -ot. Hancock for example could originally have been a name for someone whose father’s formal given name was James, which informally became Jan or Han, with -cock added to distinguish a younger Han from the older one. Mariott is supposed to have its origin in the female name Mary. Finally, the addition of -s became common. This first happened in the Midlands and south of England, while in the north the preference was to add -son. The addition of -s (and -son in the north) may indicate the transition to permanent hereditary surnames. The -s seems to have been added to all types of names in the later medieval period, even sometimes surnames that weren’t patronymics, for example Hills.

By the seventeenth century in Cornwall local and patronymic (or family) names accounted for the vast majority of persons (as opposed to names). Around a third of people had patronymic surnames, somewhat higher than in England. At the same time, another third possessed local names. Curiously, given the emphasis on Tre/Pol/Pen names and the supposed attachment to place in Cornwall, this was at the lower end of the spectrum when compared with England, especially the north. The final third of names was shared between those derived from occupations and those originating as nicknames. By the seventeenth century the former was relatively less common in Cornwall than in England, the latter relatively more.

Bynames from occupations were already numerous in England by the thirteenth century and there’s no reason to assume Cornwall was different. Many occupations gave rise to surnames but not all. In English, these are fairly easy to spot – Smith, Taylor, Wright, Baker and similar. In Cornish, like English, the most common occupational surname was that for a smith – An goff (the smith), which became Angove by the seventeenth century. To be useful as a distinguishing byname, an occupation had to be relatively uncommon, which is why we get lots of Smiths and Angoves but hardly any Labourers. There would be one or two smiths in every parish but not so many as to make the byname pointless as a distinguishing name.

Along with pet names from first names, nicknames show that surnames arose from speech, rather than being formally bestowed by clerks or other officials. A whole bunch of nicknames arose in the century before 1350. Many of these, especially the obscene ones, have unfortunately disappeared or been altered out of all recognition since then. Nicknames might have been based on various factors, such as physical features or characteristics (White or Angwin for a person with a fair or pale complexion or hair), personal habits (Curtis for a polite, courteous person), similarity to animals (Fox, Bullock), or the season of birth (Noall or Pentecost). But many origins remain obscure. Moreover, the exact meaning of a nickname given in the thirteenth century may well elude us.

A type of nickname that looks at first like an occupational name are status names. Someone called King or Bishop is unlikely to be descended from a real king or bishop. Instead, one of their predecessors may have played the role of a king in a feast play or acted like a bishop, being given the name ironically. We assume that someone called Abbot was on the corpulent side or that Sheriffs were corrupt but what aspect of a Knight’s behaviour was implied when a person was tagged Knight?

This four-fold classification into local, patronymic, occupational and nicknames is convenient and tidy but in reality a glance at any dictionary of surnames will reveal a large number of ambiguous cases. For example Barrett could either be a topographical name for someone who lived near a gate. It could stem from a nickname for someone who was a deceitful trader. Or it’s been cited as an occupational name for a person who made caps or bonnets. And, just to complicate matters further, its origins might lie in a Germanic first name introduced into Britain by the Normans.

15 thoughts on “Classifying surnames

    1. Yes, it’s genuine, McKinley states ‘Sussex especially had a large and varied collection of topographical names’ (A History of British Surnames, 1990, p.73). He linked it to concentration of people in nucleated villages. Where there were few of these and the population was more dispersed and smaller (as in Cornwall) people would take the names of settlements. Where such settlements were larger that wouldn’t be a good differentiator so their bynames related to features within the village rather than the village itself..

      It may also be linked to the timing of surname acquisition, local names being suggested as having preceded patronymics, and/or the presence of specific dialect words relating to landscape features.


    1. We can’t know for sure whether this nickname originated in Cornwall or was introduced from somewhere else. However, the number of Prowts found in Cornwall in the earliest records suggest it was present here from the 14th century when surnames were adopted in the east. Moreover, as a nickname it was likely to have arisen independently in a number of locations.


    1. Burgoyne supposedly originated as a descriptor for someone from Burgundy. In 1525 at St Teath we find John Burgoyn ‘born in France’ so that fits. Goodanew is a shortening of Goodenough and was probably a nickname. It seems to have arrived in Cornwall, first at Penryn, around 1800.


  1. I am Joanna Curnow decended from the Curnow’s at Towednack, Do you have any information on the history of our family name? Many Thanks


  2. Is anyone familiar with the Odiorne Family of Cornwall. Some of them migrated to America in the 1600s.


    Ricky Wallace


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