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Cornish Names: The unique nomenclature of Cornwall

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The distinguished British name expert Julia Cresswell is the author of several books on the subject, the most recent of which is Name Your Baby.

The British Prime Minister recently chose the Cornish name Endellion as the middle name for his new daughter.  The baby was premature, and born while the family was on holiday in Cornwall, and Endellion was chosen because the family regularly holidayed at the little village of St Endellion, so strictly speaking the name belongs with the growing trend to use place names (such as Dakota, Savannah) as first names.  However, it is also a traditional Cornish name.

But first a bit of background.  Cornwall is a popular holiday place because of its unspoilt beauty. Its unspoilt beauty comes from the fact that its position at the extreme south west of England makes it isolated.  This isolation protected it in the past, and led to the preservation of a uniquely Cornish culture.

1500 years ago, when the rest of England was being taken over by the Anglo-Saxons, Cornwall remained independent and retained its own language, descended from the language of the ancient British and closely related to Welsh,  into the 18th century.  This language is the source of many of the specially Cornish names, while the distinctive West-Country way of pronouncing English has been another source. 

I suspect that many do not realise that the most successful Cornish name is even Cornish.  That perennial favourite, Jennifer, started out as the Cornish form of the name of King Arthur’s wife, GuinevereArthur, himself, is of course supposed to have been born and named in Cornwall.

Other female names that have become well used outside Cornwall include Morwenna, another Cornish saint, said to have been Endellion’s sister and brought to a wider public by the Cornish actress Morwenna Banks; Tegan, which has been popular in Australia and means something like ‘pretty little thing’ in Cornish; Tamsyn, the Cornish form of  the name Thomasina; Kerensa or Karenza, meaning ‘affection’ and Demelza, a Cornish place name.  Another Cornish place name, Lamorna, had a brief vogue in the 19th century as a girl’s name, but is rarer now.

Masculine names have been less successful at colonising the rest of the world, perhaps because many of them are identical to Welsh forms.  The only ones that you are likely to find are Jory, a Cornish form of George and Jago a local form of James.  In addition the names Constantine, traditionally the name of the King who succeeded Arthur, is claimed as Cornish, as is Hannibal.  This ancient Phoenician name is said to have come into use because the Phoenicians traded tin with the Cornish in prehistoric times, although in fact the name only seems to have come into use in the 16th century.

As for Endellion herself, she is one of a number of peculiarly Cornish saints, most of whom have dedications nowhere else, although a few are also found in Brittany.  Many of these saints, including Endellion, were supposed to have been the children of an early Welsh king called Brychan.  He had numerous children.  The number can vary between twelve and sixty three, although twenty-four is the usual number given.  All of them are said to have become saints, many of them after moving to Cornwall.  Since fragments of her tomb survive, Endellion may have been more real than her largely mythical siblings.

It will be interesting to see if her name catches on.

Julia Cresswell lives in Oxford, England, where she teaches the history of English and medieval literature.  She has written a number of books on first names, including Naming your Baby.

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