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Archiver > CORNISH > 1997-10 > 0877119710

From: "D. Annear" <>
Subject: Celtic-Cornish Names Essay
Date: Fri, 17 Oct 1997 21:21:50 +0100

Cornish personal names are quite a mysterious characteristic of Cornwall’s Celtic
past. With one exception, no records exist of any original Celtic personal names from
Cornwall. Generally, they are found in place names throughout the county, and by analogy
with similar names in Wales and Brittany where much fuller early records are found.
The use of Celtic personal names began to die out after the Norman Conquest in 1066,
which itself was only a 130 years after Cornwall’s annexation by Wessex. Throughout the
eleventh and twelfth centuries, Cornish people were beginning to abandon the more popular
traditional Celtic names, in favour of the new Norman and Saxon ones. By the thirteenth
and fourteenth centuries, alas, most original Celtic-Cornish christian names had been
However, by comparing the names found in place names with similar ones from Wales and
Brittany, when almost the same language was spoken across these three countries, a
picture emerges of how the early Cornish named their offspring. Typically, and as might
be expected from a time when war was a constant threat, we find that many of the men are
named after fierce animals, or actually have words for battle in their names. Prefixes
such as "cad-" or "cat-" - battle-; "con-", hound- ; "gor-" or "wor-", over-/super-;
"gweth-", battle-, were all widely used. These were fixed to other nouns and adjectives
so that you might find "Worlowen", ‘very-happy’, or the unattested "Catlowen",
battle-happy.The suffix "-ki", -dog, pops up as well, so that you find "gorgi",
mighty-dog, or maybe "Catki", battle-dog.
This method of naming seems rather similar to that of the native American Indians,
who sometimes name after animals or significant events in the person’s life. Perhaps this
is a feature of tribal societies across the world. They seem very different and far more
colourful than the names that replaced them and which are still used today, common names
such as John, Richard, Peter, etc. (although some of these can be quite colourful in
their original meanings.)
The one document that survives with a hint of any Cornish names is the record of
manumissions kept in the gospel-book now at the British Library, but originally held at
St. Petrock’s monasteries at Padstow and Bodmin. This is a record of the setting-free of
slaves from the early 10th century, and contains amongst others the names of 5
manumittors, and 98 slaves with original Cornish names; names such as "Custentin",
"Cenmenoc", "Proscen", "Mermen", "Morhaitho", "Riol", "Cantguithen", "Tithert", and many
Some names can be found in "Bewnans Meriasek", the only surviving saints’ play in the
Cornish language, in particular the names of ancient Cornish kings are remembered, but
there is no evidence that they were still used at the time of writing, 1504 A.D.
However, the Cornish quite often named their children after Cornish saints, and still do
in fact. Boys names such as "Petrok", "Gerens", "Peran", "Mawgan" were used in times
past, although of these perhaps only "Petrok" is used today. A popular girl’s name in
Cornwall even today is "Morwenna", from the saint who was associated with Morwenstow, in
North-East Cornwall.
One last interesting point to note about Cornish christian names is the change
throughout all British languages of initial "U-" or "W-" to "Gw-". Although this change
happened before the tenth century, "U-" and "W-" are still found in Cornish and Breton
names throughout the Old Cornish and Old Breton periods. Names such as "Gunwalloe", and
"Gworyen" would have been "Winwaloe", and "Uryen" up until the end of the eleventh
century or so.


People who are lucky enough to have a Cornish surname are often struck by their
indivuality and strangeness when compared to surnames of those around them. This is
particularly true in areas which saw a large exodus of Cornishmen and women in the last
century, in Australia, Canada, and America, and other places within the then British
Empire, as well as in Britain itself. Even in Cornwall, people often wonder about the
meaning of their own names and the places around them.
The main characteristic that tends to make a Cornish name so prominent and
interesting is the fact that the majority of them derive from the Cornish language, and
not English. Common English names such as ‘Smith’ or ‘Knight’ go unnoticed as they are so
commonplace, but if one has one of their Cornish equivalents "Angove" or "Marrack" it
immediately gets attention. People seem to have a natural curiosity about unusual
Surnames were not used in Cornwall before the twelfth century. A few Norman families
began to adopt them during this period, but the majority of the population did not need
surnames until later on. There are records of people without surnames beyond the fiteenth
and sixteenth centuries.
People began to take surnames as record-keeping grew throughout the Middle Ages, and
as the number of people with the same christian name grew, it became essential to
distinguish them with an extra name. A person took on a name that described his home,
trade, father, (or owner whe he/she was a slave) or some other characteristic.
Eventually, these names became hereditary.
To date, there are perhaps around a thousand original Cornish surnames, and it is
often said in a rhyme that:

By Ros-, Car-, Lan-, Tre-, Pol-, Pen-,
Ye may know most Cornishmen.

One main characteristic of these Celtic surnames is that the majority of them refer
to a place. Relatively few refer to occupations or personal characteristics when compared
to those that refer to places. Prefixes associated with place names that were/are also
commonly used in surnames are "Ros-", heath, "Car-/Ker-", fort, "Tre-",
homestead/farm/town, "Pol-", pool, "Pen-", end/head/chief, "Bos-", dwelling. So, we end
up with well known names such as "Polglaze" blue/green pool, "Tremaine", home of stones,
"Prowse" ( from maP-ROS ) son of heath.
One of the most familiar English suffixes is -son, as in Richardson and meaning ‘son
of -’( or ‘slave of -’), but its Cornish equivalent Map- is hardly seen in Cornwall,
despite it being well used in Wales, and the Gaelic equivalent Mac- or Mc- being
well-known throughout the world. There is only Preece (Map-Res), Prowse (Map-Ros), Powell
(Map-Howel) and Prynne (Map-Ryn). In English, there are many more names ending in -son.
People were often named after notable personal characteristics, so that we now have
the names "Legassick" from "lagasek" - big-eyes or stary-eyes, "Couch" from "kogh" - red,
"Angwin" from "an gwynn" - the white [one], and my own ancestor who was named "Annear"
from "an hir" - the long/tall [one].
Names that survive today and were taken from a person’s trade or occupation include
"Angove" from "an gov" - the smith (the Cornish equivalent of SMITH), and "Marrack" from
"marrek / marghek" - rider / knight / horseman.
Some people erroneously think, even today, that the Cornish (and even some Welshmen)
are descended from the Spanish who were survivors of the wrecks of the Armada in the
sixteenth century. Good Cornish names such as "Jose", "Clemo", and "Bennetto" proposed as
evidence of this are easily shown to be of Cornish descent and in use long before the
Spanish incursions. In any case, there has always been people who propose foolish ideas
of where or whom the Cornish are descended from. In the sixteenth century and before it
was widely held that they were either descended from the Trojans, or Noah and Japhet, or
that they were even the Lost Tribes of Isreal!* Mind you, which country’s people hasn’t
been said to be the Lost Tribes of Isreal?!
Whatever daft ideas may have been held in the past, at least we can say today that we
know where the majority of the Cornish are truly descended from, and that our family and
personal names reflect at least fifteen hundred years and beyond of Celtic history and
heritage. HIRNETH RE BESSYO! [= long may it continue!]

*I should say here what was pointed out to me about this paragraph - apparently there are
still authors today who propose similar astonishing ideas that are yet well researched
and difficult to rebuff point by point.

Dave Annear
email c/o:

my Cornish language site

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