Cornish surnames are surnames used by Cornish people and often derived from the Cornish language such as Jago, Trelawney or Enys. Others have strong roots in the region and many in the UK with names such as Eddy, Stark or Rowe are likely to have Cornish origins. Such surnames for the common people emerged in the Middle Ages, although the nobility probably had surnames much earlier on. Not until the later Middle Ages did it become necessary for a common man to have a surname. Most surnames were fully established throughout Cornwall by the end of the 15th century. Today Cornish surnames can be found throughout the world as part of the Cornish diaspora.
Due to the linguistic similarity of Cornish, Welsh and Breton, some surnames can derive from any of the three regions.
The most common surnames in Cornwall are derived from patronymics, the father's first name being taken either without alteration, for example 'John', or with the addition of genitive '-s' or, typically Cornish, '-o', e.g. 'Bennetto' or '-y' as in 'Pawley'.
The phrase Tre, Pol and Pen is used to describe people from, or places in, Cornwall, the United Kingdom. Carew has By Tre, Pol and Pen / You shall know the Cornishmen; however, Camden records the rhyme as By Tre, Ros, Pol, Lan, Caer and Pen / You may know the most Cornishmen.
Many Cornish surnames and place names still retain these words as prefixes, such as the names Trelawny or Trevithick and the towns of Polperro, Polkerris and of course Penzance. "Carbines" derives from karn byghan "little tor".
Caution should be exercised with the derivation of "Car-" surnames as there seems also to be fusion with names containing the word ker "hill-fort", as in "Carvosso" ker fosow "walled hill-fort", a placename found in Ludgvan. There is also karrek "rocky". "Rosdew" is ros du "black moor" and "Ros(e)warne" from ros (g)wern "alder heath" or perhaps "heath by an alder-marsh". "Landry" means lan dre "enclosure of farmhouse or church-house".
Other examples of place-names used as surnames:
As in many other parts of Europe, names were used to describe the occupation of the head of the family; "Angove" (Cornish: an Gov "the Smith"), for example, being the equivalent to the Irish Gowan, Scottish Gow, Breton "Le Goff", "Legoff", "Legoffic", English "Smith", German "Schmidt" Polish "Kowalski" and Italian "Ferrero". Other examples of names derived from trades include "Dyer" (Cornish: tior "thatcher") and "Helyer" (Cornish: helghyer "hunter"), both of which can be found in English too, i.e. "Thatcher" and "Hunter" respectively, while Dyer itself is also English for someone who dyes clothing.
Some surnames were derived from animals which may indicate that the bearer of some of these surnames may have made a living from hunting, examples include Bligh "wolf" (Cornish: blydh) and Coon "hounds" (Cornish: keun).
Gwinnel: possibly from Cornish: gwennel "swallow"; it also refers to a weaver's shuttle
At least one known Cornish surname derives from the name of a festival, namely "Pascoe" from "Easter".
Another category of surnames is derived from personal characteristics or nicknames/hypocoristics. e.g. "Coad" (Cor.coth=old), "Couch" (Cor.cough=red) and "Tallack" (Cor.talek=wide-browed).
The surname "Cornish" with variants "Cornysshe", "Cornyshe", "Cornysh", "Cornishe", "Cornisshe", and "Cornis"- standardised as "Cornish"- is to be found throughout Great Britain and Ireland. This name seems to originate from a time when ordinary people were still not using surnames in the modern way. A native Cornishman who had left Cornwall for another part of Britain or Ireland was given the name "Cornish", i.e. the Cornishman. In "A Dictionary of British Surnames", P.H. Reaney (1976), the following entries and dates are to be found:
The first recorded instance is in the National Dictionary in 1547. It is likely that the Adam Corneys recorded in 1300 is identical to Adam Le Cornwalais recorded in 1275. Other related names to Cornish that designate a Cornish origin include "Cornwall", "Cornwell", "Cornick", "Curnow", "Cornu", "Kernew", "Kernow" etc. (although Cornick may have other origins as well). In previous centuries these names may have alternated along with "Cornwallis" and "Le Cornwalais".
Especially in West Cornwall, many names typically associated with Welsh are also found. In the Cornish language, ultimately a language linked to Welsh and Breton, the prefix 'map' may have been used, as in Welsh, to indicate the relationship of father to son, this later becoming "ap" (as in NW Breton area, Leon dialect, Breton WP) and then finally the "p" alone being prefixed to the name, e.g. (m)ap Richard becoming "Pri(t)chard". Another feature of these patronymics was the diminutive suffix "-kin" being added the father's first name e.g. "Tonkin", which may derive from either Anthony or Thomas.
Surnames found at high frequencies in both Wales and Cornwall include:
Owing to the gradual language shift in Cornwall from the native Cornish language to English, approximately until the mid-18th century, some Cornish language surnames underwent change through folk etymology. The Cornish meaning of the name was no longer understood and so it was changed into a similar-sounding English word, not necessarily anything to do with the original meaning in Cornish. The same process has been noted in Cornish placenames too. One example of this process regarding surnames is the surname "Kneebone" which actually derives from the Cornish "Carn Ebwen" or the "tomb", "carn" of "Ebwen". The change must have occurred at a point when the original "k" at the beginning of the English word was still pronounced and thus suggests an early period in which it was anglicised.
There are also many names typically found in Cornwall that may have a completely non-Cornish language origin, excluding those names taken from English, yet a strong association with the area. These names reflect the historical connections between Cornwall and Brittany and also the Norman occupation of Cornwall. The Normans themselves employed Bretons in the administration of Cornwall and thus "imported" Breton names in Cornwall are not unusual.
Not all people who consider themselves Cornish have a necessarily Cornish surname nor do all Cornish surname bearers necessarily identify themselves as Cornish.