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Indulging some idle curiosity about Cornish mining I noticed that many of the mines are named wheal: Wheal Kitty, Wheal Jane and East Wheal Rose, among others.

But the only dictionary definition I can dig up explains wheal as:-

  1. a small, burning or itching swelling on the skin, as from a mosquito bite or from hives.
  2. a wale or welt.

This doesn't appear to be what is meant. There is also a mention in passing here, but no clue as to the actual meaning. So, what is a wheal, in the mining sense of the word?

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en.wiktionary.org/wiki/wheal "Etymology 2" – d'alar'cop Feb 2 '14 at 12:17
Wheal \Wheal\, n. [Cornish hwel.] (Mining) A mine. [1913 Webster] wheal.askdefine.com – Kris Feb 2 '14 at 12:38
"By Tre, Pol and Pen you will know the Cornishmen" intocornwall.com/features/cornish_language.asp – Kris Feb 2 '14 at 12:43
up vote 10 down vote accepted

OED has

wheal n.3
Etymology: < Cornish huel.

A mine.

1830 Eng. & For. Mining Gloss.

Wheal is an Anglicisation of the Cornish word.

It's interesting that Wiktionary's earliest citation appears to predate OED:

1829, Thomas Moore, The History of Devonshire, page 528,
The four last-mentioned mines, Wheal Crowndale, Wheal Crebor, East Liscombe, and Wheal Tamar, are on the same lode, which ranges as usual from east to west, and are included in a space of about four miles in length.

although since it contains data for 1830, it cannot have been published in 1829. The book contains a better citation in the footnote on page 527:

Wheal (or rather huel) is said to be derived from the Cornish language, and to signify a work or mine.

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It's just the local name for a mine, as tor is for a hill. The OED says it derives from Cornish huel, but I can find no such word in modern Cornish (though admittedly all variants of Cornish now in use were created some time after the mines closed down).

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The modern variant is apparently hwel. According to Jago’s 1887 dictionary, the original meaning of the word (which he writes, whêl, wheal, wheyl, wheil, whyl, wail, whela, wheela, huel, huêl, hwêl, hweyl, and probably half a dozen other ways, too) is neither ‘mine’ nor ‘hole’, but work: a mine is ‘the workings’. A workman/worker is given as dên huél (dên = person, man), too. My knowledge of Cornish is far too limited to know if he’s right, though. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 22 '15 at 23:35

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