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The Tregenza Name

The Tregenza family is Cornish in origin as the old adage suggests: Tre, Pol and Pen - True Cornishmen.

Not Spanish

Although a Spanish origin has been suggest for the surname (family name) there is no evidence to support this or any good reason to propose it. The "Z" gives a suitable pronunciation as it is the way that a "S" is pronounced in the Cornish dialect. The landing of the Spanish at Mousehole in 1595 occurred over two hundred years before Tregenzas were found in that part of Cornwall.

Varied spellings in Cornwall

The spelling has varied but the pronunciation is always similar in the Cornish dialect. The ending has been "S" or "Z" with "OE", "O", "OW" or "A". As the emphasis is always on the first two syllables the ending is hardly heard in normal Cornish pronunciation.

Varied spellings out of Cornwall

Outside Cornwall the name is often mis-spelt, most frequently one or both of the "E"s are replaced by "A" (Treganza or Traganza). Branches of the family in North America and New Zealand have adopted these spellings.

Tregenza Treganza

Jack R Tregenza (Unconnected family 20) wrote in 1971 "I will now explain the Treganza part. My grandfather JAMES who was born October 11 1841 in Cornwall came to this country in 1842 and went to Hazel Green, Wisconsin, mostly by covered wagon. It was there that a schoolmistress thought the name Treganza sounded better than Tregenza. As so often happened in the early west days, names were changed. It was on the trip to Cornwall in 1924 that my mother and I decided to go back to the original spelling." 

Development of family names

Family names developed after the Normans (1066 onwards) began to introduce a regulated society. They had a sophisticated system of family names, hierarchy and heraldry that was unknown in the celtic world and more complex than anything the Anglo-Saxons had. The use of surnames or family names required for contacts with the royal court, law, civil service and government gradually moved into the provinces and reached the peasants in outlying areas last. Most Cornish got family names in the 15th century.

The creation of family names occurred while the native tongue, Cornish, was spoken. The celtic language of Cornish gradually faded and died after the invasion of the Anglo-Saxons (in 9th century) but due to the isolation of the county it continued to be spoken in some form until the 19th century, although all people spoke English from the 18th century onwards. Place names and surnames became fixed while the language was in full popular use. Dolly Pentreath was reputed to be the last person to speak the Cornish language fluently and she died in 1777. The people who now speak and write in the language have learnt the language that was resurrected and unified from the spoken and written remains of the language (see the dictionary by Morton Nance republished by Dyllansow Truran 1990).

Cornish family names have simple origins such as: 1. place where the owner lived or originated, 2. owner's father's first name, 3. the owner's occupation, 4. a feature of the person (often a nick-name). TRE (a farmstead), POL (a pool) and PEN (literally a head but used for a hill or headland) are common in place-names and family names but there are many others such as Andrewartha (an dre wartha = of the upper farmstead). Others are Angove (an gof = the blacksmith), Baragwanath (bara gwaeneth = wheaten bread), Cooch (coch = red for red-headed), Legassick (legas = eyes, legassek = prominent eyes) and Pascoe (pask = Easter for born at Easter). Johnson, Peters, Phillips etc.("s" or "son" indicating "son of") are less common in Cornwall. As several unrelated people may come from a particular farmstead, have red-hair, have a father called Peter etc. there is no necessity for all holders of a family name to be related though this is more likely with a rare name like Tregenza.

Tregenza Family Name

Tregenza must therefore be a family name from a place-name as TRE means farmstead. Tref (Tre or Dre in combination) means the group of dwellings and farm buildings typical of the Celtic countryside. These farmsteads consisted of several extended families, that are usually related, and who farmed co-operatively the surrounding area. In modern times these have reduced to one farm run by a small family or even a couple and many have disappeared as farms amalgamated. A few (especially those near the church) have however developed into villages and towns. Treneglos, Tresillian, Treliske and Treloyan are examples in Cornwall and Trefforest in Wales. Villages and towns are the usual settlement in England but they developed centuries later in the Celtic fringe (Cornwall, Wales and Scotland).

In Celtic languages adjectives nearly always follow the noun and so GENZA is an adjective. A search for the origin of the family name TREGENZA can therefore look for the meaning in Cornish language and also for a place called Tregenza.

T F G Dexter in his book Cornish Names 1926 gives the most likely explanation of the meaning of the name. He suggests that it derives from Tre gensa meaning the first, front, foremost or prime farmstead. The adjective 'kensa' is an irregular form for first (in the same way that in English 'first' is irregular and not derived from 'one'). The change of 'k' (or hard 'c') to 'g' is an example of the typical and common mutation of consonants used in Celtic languages to make speaking smoother.

The farmstead Tregenza was on top of a gentle rise above the parish church; overlooking it, the valley and old Tregonjohn farm-stead. Also the Tregenza farm was listed first on many documents sometimes with Tregonjohn. Both could have given rise to the name meaning first or foremost. After the church and Churchtown farm it is generally list first in parish records.

Richard Blewett gave meanings for family names in a series of newspaper articles in the West Briton ( 7 January 1960). "I have not found a place name and I have searched in vain for a clue to its meaning in any modern works on the Cornish language. But an 1870 book on Cornish surnames entitled Patronymica Cornu-Brittania was written by R. S. Charnock ..... I am offering his [Charnock's] interpretation of the surname Tregenza with some doubt from TREG-'N-SAIR = the dwelling of the woodman or carpenter."   Blewett also says that Charnock‚Äôs book includes names never found in Cornwall and derivations that do not stand up to modern scholarship.

The full Cornish elements could be TREF (dwelling or farmstead), AN (of the), PREN (wood or timber) and SER (pronounced SAIR = artificier). It is not sure that Charnock considered that the word PREN was there or just assumed. If it was there originally it would be expected to follow the noun SER not precede it. AN commonly reduces to 'N and TREF to TRE. However there appears to be no reason for the appearance of the G!

- Extracts from The Genealogy of Tregenza Family by Paul Tregenza.