Surnames and the Cornish language

Bynames and family names tell us a lot about the historical geography of the Cornish language. But first what’s the context? When did bynames, changing from one generation to the next, become stable surnames, passed down from generation to generation. In England there was a long transitional phase, from around 1250 to the 1400s, during which second names became fixed. This occurred first in the south east and in the wealthier sections of society and then spread later to the north and to the poor.

In the Cornish lay subsidy roll of 1327, 94% of those taxpayers who bore local placenames as their second names were living in the parish where that place was found. This strongly suggests that, even among the landowning class, in 1327 in Cornwall fixed surnames were rare. By the time the next relatively comprehensive list of names is available – in the early 1500s – virtually all families in England possessed hereditary surnames.

But not in Cornwall. In the 16th century second names in Cornwall could still be fluid, liable to change from father to son (and daughter). Charles Henderson discovered the example of the Thomas family at Carnsew, Mabe, who in the 1580s decided to call themselves Carnsew. A century later they’d moved to the neighbouring parish of Budock and the alias of Carnsew had become their family name. This practice of adopting new surnames when moving house was apparently not uncommon. From the Arundell estate papers, Oliver Padel cites the example of Walter John Jago in 1480, whose family name had became Trethowall by 1499. As late as the 1570s Pascow Kerne at Newlyn East changed his name to Pascoe Tresylyan. For Padel, this illustrates a ‘fondness for having as a surname the name of one’s residence’. Maybe, although we must also note that the proportion of families bearing such local names as their surnames in Cornwall was not exceptionally high, lower than in Yorkshire and Lancashire for instance.

Although some families had hereditary surnames by the later 1400s, in the 16th century many others still hadn’t. The reason why in Cornwall bynames did not become hereditary for many families until the 16th century was that Cornwall was a land of two tongues. In Wales in the 15th century Bruce Lenman notes a convoluted ethnic frontier, and significantly adds, ‘not to mention a lesser one of the same kind in Cornwall where a Celtic tongue was still widely spoken’.

It’s precisely because of the existence of two vernaculars that naming customs in parts of Cornwall differed from those in England. In Devon, it’s been estimated that hereditary surnames were the norm by 1350; in Wales this wasn’t the case until the 1600s. However, in Cornwall, both English and Welsh naming practices could be found. In the east of Cornwall there is little reason to assume that hereditary surnames were uncommon by 1400. Indeed, in Werrington, on the border, most families had hereditary surnames by the 1360s. But in the west, reflecting that ethnic frontier, an unknown percentage of second names were still unstable well into the 16th century and perhaps later, this proportion probably highest among the poorest.

If this was the case we might expect many people’s second names in the west in the early 16th century to have meant what they said. If someone was called Miller, they were a miller; if their name was White, they would have had a pale face or light coloured hair. And in parishes where Cornish was spoken their names may actually have been Melender or Angwin, miller and white in Cornish. Sometimes, not always, these names would have been written into the record in their original Cornish form.

Sure enough, in the 16th century lay subsidies we find a number of specifically Cornish names. Some were distinctive patronymics. Higow, Doggow, Daddow, Clemow and Sandow were the equivalent of Hicks, Dodge, Davies, Clements and Sanders, the suffix -ow indicating son of. Sometimes the suffix -a is found, as in Holla (son of Hal/Henry?), Matta, Tomma or Jacka, these names significantly being restricted to the west. Although the latter two at least could also be found in earlier centuries in English-speaking Devon and may either indicate a conservatism in naming practices or a tendency to add -a to borrowed English words.

Higow C16As an example, the distribution of Higow or Hicka, the Cornish for Richard, in the early 16th century shows a definite western emphasis. By 1641 however, instead of ramifying as most names did, the number of Higows had declined. Higgo could still be found, mainly in Helston and Gwennap, in the 18th century but by the 19th century it had disappeared. Some Higgoes may have become Hugo, and others would have transformed their names into the English Hicks. While Higow (and Doggow) became extinct, others such as Jacka or Gummow survived to become hereditary surnames.

Higgow 1641



A better guide to identifying where the Cornish language was spoken in the early 1500s may be provided by nicknames. In fact a rich set of Cornish nicknames circulated at this time.

Some Cornish nicknames in the 1500s

Abas (Abbot) Envelyn (yellow) Mana (Monk)
Anglasse (Green) Enwore (Gold) Marrack (Knight)
Angwin (White) Epscop (Bishop) Melonek (yellowish)
Anhere (Long) Ergudyn (snowlock) Scovarn (ear)
Coynt (strange) Gotha (elder/senior) Sise (English)
Cunnack (Wise) Gothewer (evening) Taborer (drummer)
Duwyn (Grey?) Gwaryack (playful) Tegaw (Toy)
Endean (Mann) Hegar (friendly) Tege (beautiful)
Endeves (Mutton) Kembra (Welsh) Vean (junior)

marrack C16Most of these were only borne by a handful of families and did not become hereditary, and have therefore unfortunately been lost. A few, like Marrack, survived. Some doubts have been expressed about the Cornish origins of this name. However, its distribution in 1861 suggests a West Penwith focus, while in the 16th century we can see that it was more widely encountered but only west of Truro. Overall, nicknames were in general in the early 16th century more likely to be found in Penwith and Kerrier, with some finding their way into east Cornwall.

Occupational names are an even better guide to the geography of the Cornish language at this time. Of the following occupational names only Angove (the most common) and Trehar (Trahair) survived to become hereditary surnames. That reinforces the conclusion that such bynames in the early 16th century meant what they said and were not yet hereditary surnames. No doubt, as the transition to fixed surnames was made in parallel with the spread of English, names like Trehar would tend to be translated into their English equivalents.

Some Cornish occupational names in the 1500s

Angoffe (Smith) Mablean (Clark) Trehar (Tailor)
Dreveler (Mason) Melender (Miller) Trockyer (Fuller)
Gweader (Weaver) Meneger (Glover) Tyar (Thatcher)
Kegoer (Butcher) Pebar (Baker)

angove and smith early C16The distribution of Engoff/Angoff and Smith in the early 16th century might suggest where Cornish was likely to be the language of choice. Note however that Smith was hardly unknown in mid and west Cornwall. To some extent, this is to be expected, as those who wrote down the record would have been literate in English and only rarely in Cornish and may have, wittingly or unwittingly, translated the spoken Cornish Engoff into its higher status English version when writing it down. Given the inferior status of Cornish it’s hardly surprising that English occupational names were also widely found in Cornish-speaking areas. This does not necessarily mean that their bearers were English-speakers however.

If we combine together all Cornish language names of all types we get this map.

total Cornish names 1520s

This suggests the Cornish language was spoken up to Rumford, the area west of Bodmin and Tywardreath, with an ambiguous zone between the Camel and the Fowey. The division reflects a long-lasting linguistic frontier which was in place probably from the early 14th century to the 17th century and which moulded the history of Cornwall, even leaving its traces in the modern cultural landscape.

This conclusion is supported by other evidence. Oliver Padel has noted the presence of two-part surnames. Someone called Richard John Tomkin for instance might have a son, who would then be called Uryn Richard John, an echo of Welsh naming practices. Sometimes the final part of the name was a placename, as in the case of Jenkin Tom Hellas (Helston), who lived at Penryn in 1543. If two-part surnames in the early 1500s are mapped, we see something very similar to the map of Cornish language names.

two part surnames C16

As bynames became surnames relatively late in the west, there was a tendency for a high proportion to be patronymic. This explains the frequency of patronymic surnames in Cornwall, as in Wales. Indeed, a map of the three most common Cornish surnames in 1861 – Williams, Thomas and Richards – can be viewed as a ghost of the geography of Cornish in the 1500s and 1600s. (The relatively high proportion in the Liskeard and Calstock districts was the result of the migration of miners eastwards.) As Robert Morton Nance put it ‘Cornish [locative] surnames may record only the loot, by a Norman, of the estate of a Saxon, who dispossessed the heir of a Cornishman, who founded it and gave it his own name with Tre- before it; while the Cornish founder’s heirs may still walk among us bearing perhaps, like so many Celts in Wales, some name such as Williams, Thomas or Richards.’

wms rds thos 1861

Cornish language locative surnames are therefore not a good guide to the geography of the Cornish language. This is because placenames were formed many centuries before surnames became hereditary and are as likely to be Cornish in the east as in the west (with the exception of the far north beyond the River Ottery and stretches along the Tamar downstream). Indeed, Oliver Padel has found that in 1327 there was little difference in the proportion of locative surnames between the west and east of Cornwall. Yet that had changed radically by the early 16th century. In the 1500s the Cornish-speaking west had a considerably higher number of locative surnames than did the east. Moreover, the transition was not gradual but exhibited a sudden, sharp discontinuity in mid-Cornwall. This discontinuity came precisely at that line running from the Camel southwards through St Wenn and Luxulyan to St Blazey. Clearly this has to be evidence for different naming practices in east and west, reflecting cultural divisions within Cornwall in the 1500s.

cornish language locative names C16

39 thoughts on “Surnames and the Cornish language

  1. My ancestors in the 1850s lived in St Just and Penzance. They were called Gard, however they also seem to refer to themselves as Safeguard and then San Garde. They moved from Cornwall to Liverpool. Why would they change their surname? Was it common practice at this time? Thanks.


    1. Changing surnames is unusual as late as the 19th century but use of aliases was common and it was not unknown for surnames to be swapped over the generations. This could be an example of preferring an alias.It could have been a status thing – maybe they throught a longer surname was posher? As a surname Gard was most common in the very east of Cornwall, Devon and Somerset rather than the far west. In the early 16th century the only examples in Cornwall are found in Morwenstow and Launcells.


  2. In May 2015 you gave some talks in Madron on Cornish surnames. Is there a way to obtain a copy of the information you gave about the Trembath surname please?


  3. You didn’t mention one Cornish descriptive / nickname that survived and has become very common around the the world. Moyle (my family name) meaning bald or possibly bare hill. It survived in Cornwall though not really common but is common in Australia, USA and even appears in Mexico and South Africa.

    Also can you shed some light on the use of hap / ap / map meaning son of in Welsh or Cornish. It was common in Wales (similar to Mc, Mac and ‘O in Scotland / Ireland) but was it used in Cornwall?


  4. Do you know anything of the surname ‘Brokenshire’ (earliest spelling I’ve found: ‘Brokensha’)? It’s certainly a surname from Cornwall although that doesn’t necessarily make it a Cornish surname 🙂


    1. What date is your earliest example, Nic? The earliest I have are from the Protestation Return (1641) when the name is spelt Brekenshaw and confined to the parish of Mevagissey. I’ve found none in the early 16th century tax returns. According to the surname dictionaries Brokenshaw is a variant of Burkinshaw or Birkinshaw, from a place in Yorkshire. That seems a long way to come to Cornwall but as Mevagissey is a port it’s certainly possible that it arrived here somewhere between the 1540s and 1630s.


      1. It might relate to occupation. Priests, magistrates, constables, and others like that got rotated around the country. In law enforcement it was meant to stop them being influenced by locals, bribed, or becoming biased. Then there are soldiers, traders, teachers, people progressing in apprenticed trades…


    1. Yes, I have a paper, I think unpublished, written by Oliver Padel, which concerns the surname Beswetherick. But that was a late variant of Boswarthack, which he says arose, as you say, in the Falmouth area in the 1600s. But Boswarthack was itself a variant of the placename Bosvathick in Constantine. We find Bosvatheks in Mabe and Constantine in 1522 and Wendron in 1535. The spelling Boswathek appears later in the 1500s and then Boswarthek in the early 1600s, but all in and around Mabe, Constantine and Wendron before being found in the growing new town of Falmouth. The Boswarthack spelling variant actually became pretty rare and there are only two heads of household with that name in the 1861 census in Cornwall.


    1. It could be a spelling version of the name Crabb, with which it overlaps. Crabb is suggested to have originated for somebody living near a crab-apple tree or be a nickname for a sour, tetchy person. On the other hand, Crapp also shared a geography with the older name Cropp, an occupational name for a reaper.


  5. Hello!

    My great grandfather’s mother surname was Penrose – I know this is rather common surname in Cornwall (or at least, used to be!), but do you know the exact origin? We’re not sure if our family may have come from Cornwall, and migrated to Wiltshire, where they are now.

    Thank you!


    1. Hi Stephanie,
      Penrose is still alive and well in Cornwall. In fact it was my grandmother’s maiden name. It originated in the placename Penrose, which means end of the moor or moor’s end. The placename was quite common, wth at least 11 examples and the surname arose from several of those places independently. Have a look at the map of its distribution in 1861 elsewhere on this site.


  6. Hi, my ancestor came to Mexico to Real del Monte in 1825. His name was William McNaught. Can you tell which place Cornwall was?

    iI the British consulate of Mexico appears as a pensioner of Chelsea was born in 1778 approximately and died on 07-27-1859


  7. Hello I am looking for.any news on meaning of the surname Ellix , which was found in Cornwal and later England. Seems to have first been in the US 1880s/1860s. Cannot find any cor ish words.or places similar.and have hit a dead end. Thank you!


  8. Hi, I’m interested to know about two Cornish surnames. I have ancestors with the surname Paddy. Does that signify an Irish connection or something else altogether? Another name that crops up in my family history is Godolphin. I think there is an aristocratic family that bears that name. I’m pretty sure my ancestors weren’t aristocrats so how might they have got the name? Jean


    1. Paddy is either a pet name for Patrick or a nickname from the French petit and doesn’t signify an Irish connection. It’s in my book. Goldophin was indeed the name of a prominent Cornish landowning family in the 1500s but their line died out in the 18th. After then it became very rare. It comes from a placename.


  9. A coupe of questions I was hoping that you might be kind enough to shed some light on. First, we have traced one root to a James Tresilian/Tresillian of St Buryan 1676. I was surprised and curious as to why it doesn’t seem to be on your list of Cornish surnames? Second, we have traced another root back to Bennet William and Katherin Thomas (alias Trotholl) in Phillack 1622. We understand the possible reasons for adding an alias, it is the name itself that remains a mystery. Could it be a variant of Trythall?


    1. Hi Mike, As I’m sure you’ll understand it’s impossible to include every single surname that has ever appeared. As I explain in the introduction to my book, the method I used to select the names was not subjective but based on their frequency in the 1861 census plus uniqueness to Cornwall. While Tresillian is obviously a uniquely Cornish surname the number of households headed by this surname in 1861 was precisely zero. There are just a handful of instances of this surname in 19th century parish registers and it seems to have become very rare after the 1700s. The answer to your second question is almost certainly yes.


  10. looking for two bits of information, I have a relative that had a job of ” tend a bundle “, and the last name is Penalura. They worked and lived in Redruth St. Uny.


    1. That’s probably a ‘buddle’, rather than a bundle. It was a usually circular pit where running water was used in tin mining to separate ore from the waste rock by sedimentation. The buddle boy’s job was to keep things flowing by stirring the buddle. I can find no examples of a name Penalura. It’s possibly a misspelling of Penaluna.


  11. Hello, I was brought up to believe that Matthew Boulton 1728-1809 and and his business partner James Watt rented a house in Cusgarne, Truro during the 1780s while they were advising tin mine owners of various inventions to improve tin mining. During this time MB had a relationship with a local girl, surname PHILLP, and they had a son John? Phillp. MB acknowledged the boy and was happy for him to come up to Birmingham when he was 18 yrs old to become an apprentice in his business. This would make MB my great great great great grandfather! MB has featured on the back of the £50 alongside James Watt. Is PHILLP a Cornish name? are there many in the Truro area? Many thanks for any help you can give me, much appreciated. BW Sarah Wilton


    1. Boulton did indeed rent Cusgarne House in Novermber 1780 and Watt stayed there when he visited in 1781. But Boulton complained of the ‘out of the way’ location of Cusgarne, which was on the edge of the main copper mining district, and gave up the house late in 1782. I don’t know of any references to a relationship, however, or the illegitimate son. Maybe someone else reading this will have.

      Philp is indeed a fairly common surname in Cornwall, especially in east Cornwall, although Truro has a good number too.


  12. What an amazingly generous person you are – your research and knowledge are very much appreciated.
    I am an Ennor, living in Aotearoa New Zealand – my Cornish ancestor arrived here in 1878 bearing both Ennor and Trehane as names. We visited Ennor on Scilly – the old castle remains but I’m pretty sure that the Ennor’s who left for NZ had been on the mainland (they sailed from London). Any light you can shed on Ennor or Trehane would be much appreciated


  13. Hi..great information. I am looking for the origins of where the Vian family came from in Cornwall ie. before they got to Cornwall. I was able to trace to
    John Vian
    B:Abt. 1500 Cornwall, England

    D:17 Aug 1578 Madron, St Ewe, Cornwall, England

    My GF another John Vian was in the British service but stayed in the British Colonies in Frederick Maryland. Ohter Vian’s are William and Roger..they used the same first names alot.

    There are other names Pudner, Harris, Legge, Hallamore, Thomas, Stone, Emblin by marriage by the Vian’s..
    Thank you.


    1. Vians didn’t get to Cornwall -they were already here! From my surnames book – “Vean or Vian made a regular appearance in name lists in the 1500s as it was the Cornish word for little, applied to a younger or junior person … “


  14. Excellent article. I’m curious if you have any information on the roots of the surname ‘Olds’? My ancestors immigrated from Cornwall in the 19th century to NZ. (I suppose at some level way back it’s anglo-saxon in origin)


    1. It was clearly from the English language, although its 16th century bearers could hardly be described as ‘anglo-saxon’, as one of the two districts that had this name was well inside the cornish-speaking zone.


  15. Hi I live in Australia and now in my retirement I have more time to explore my family history. The most frustrating searches I have are for my mother’s maiden name, Traveller. In the 1600s a forebear following that line was Trevailier in Devon. Which was preceded by Trevailer in Cambourne, Cornwall in the mid 1600s. Further back early 1600s and Gulval. Late 1500s Treviler in Gulval. I have found it as Trevalyer, Trevilor,Trevailior, Trewella. I traced the earliest back to 1530. They married Genvers, Woolcocke, Slader, Jeffree, Greene, and Chugg. The further you back the more daunting the task. My question is What may have been the family’s original Cornish name and what may have been its origins and meaning.
    Thanks so much for considering this comment and question.


    1. If your earliest attestation of the name is in mid or west Cornwall it could be an occupational name, as travaylor meant a labourer in post-medieval Cornish. I’m sure I’ve seen a reference to this word adopted as a surname in the early modern period, although I don’t seem able to find it at present!


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