Click the letter to see some examples of surnames, their meanings and distribution in Norfolk.
What’s in a name? Before the Normans arrived – 1066 and all that – the business of names was simple. If your father named you Wat then you were Wat. If there was another Wat in the area you might be Wat the tiler or Tom’s son Wat.
Then Duke William arrived and brought over surnames and within 300 years nearly everyone, in England at least, had one.
In the beginning it was easy. If you were called Wat then your son Wat would be Wat Wat’s son which became Watson. Eventually even the child of Tom, son of Harold, son of Wat would be called Watson rather than Tom’s son.
Well they did give us surnames, in fact their leader was already known as WIlliam the Bastard, a reference that at the time was a means of identification rather than a term of abuse.
The name still survives today and in the 1881 census for Norfolk there are 32 people with the surname Bastard.
The name crops up 188 times for the Norfolk in the International Genealogical Index, the earliest reference being 1532 in Grimston.
This was quite useful because if Wat had just six sons and daughters (one of them called Wat) and each then had a child and called it after their father then there would have been eight people called Wat.
Imagine if each generation named their first child after old Wat — we would have been inundated with Wats.
A name based on a father’s name is called a patronymic. A less common form of naming came from a mother’s name (metronymic). These generally came about when a woman had been a widow (or otherwise raising a child on her own) for most of her life, or if she was an heiress in her own right.
There are many other ways of obtaining a name ranging from your job (occupational names), to the place where you lived (or had lived if you were a stranger in town) which included things like Underhill, or Bywater (habitation or topographical names) or even a nickname because of something you did or the way you looked.
Names are not always as obvious as you might think. Someone with the surname Farmer might see themselves as being from a rural background, a tiller of the soil — whereas the name actually derived from a tax-gatherer.
The term farmer was not used as a term for a tenant of agricultural land until the 1600s, long after naming practices began.