Why do surnames matter? An introduction

Over the past couple of generations interest in surnames has spread beyond the antiquarian and the genealogist. The description of such names as family names locates this in the parallel popularity of family history. Even if detailed family links cannot be drawn, the distribution of less common surnames in the past can provide the family historians with considerable clues as to the former places of residence of their male forebears. Recently, DNA evidence has also proved that the distribution of surnames correlate closely to that of Y-chromosomes, indicating that surnames can act as a useful surrogate for tracing male lines of descent. Moreover, TV programmes such as Who Do You Think You Are? have popularised the search for ancestors while the tedious detective work of hunting page by page through census lists or parish registers in search of past generations has been greatly eased by computers and the internet, which now allow a lot of research to be undertaken without even leaving home.

The sight of the formidable Jeremy Paxman blubbing when he learnt that one of his ancestors had ended up in the workhouse illustrates the pull of family history. Somehow, the past becomes more meaningful and alive when the actors in it become our own flesh and blood. Yet this surge of interest in family history and our family names also owes something to other, deeper factors. As the world changes around us and as that process of change, driven by imperatives we often seem powerless to affect, transforms familiar places and communities, we look to the safer ground of the past for a sense of place, for reassurance, stability and security. This can of course run the risk of imagining a romantic, unchanging past, a bucolic time of contented communities that acts as a mythical refuge from the troubles of the present. More often, the family historian soon realises, as Paxman did, that the past brought its own quota of troubles, different from ours but at least as traumatic and usually far more traumatic for those who had to endure and survive them.

This search for roots takes on an added dimension in Cornwall, where a taste for genealogy became a veritable flood of enthusiasm in the 1970 and 1980s. Since the 1960s large scale in-migration from England has radically altered Cornwall and its communities. The everyday, taken for granted Cornishness of our parents and grandparents’ times are gone. In the face of this apparently unstoppable process of rapid population growth and social change we turn to our family histories and our family names for solace and rootedness. As Cornish accents and dialects wither and the old ways disappear, the one certain support becomes the sturdy family tree. Those of us fortunate to have been born to parents who were Cornish will sooner rather than later meet distinctive Cornish surnames as we explore those roots, even if our current name doesn’t seem that ‘Cornish’. Here, finally, is something ‘they’ can’t take away from us – a distinct stock of Cornish family names, many originating in the Cornish language and placenames. These can provide the self-confidence that can be eroded in a contemporary Cornwall where being Cornish is too often dismissed, demeaned, ignored or patronised. Our family names both root us and remind us that we are part of a distinctive society shaped by its own history and its own culture, one that requires explaining in its own terms.

2 thoughts on “Why do surnames matter? An introduction

  1. I have done some work on Cornish surnames and would be happy to share information. Unfortunately I am busy at the moment preparing for exams but will be free by June 20th when there will be a meeting of the Taves an Tir project at Landithy Hall, Madron 2pm – 5pm.

  2. I am Australian born , but my ancestry is Cornish, with my Great-great grandparents moving from Cornwall. My goal is to ensure my family now identifies with their Cornish heritage, the culture and the strong family values.

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