Sunday, August 27, 2017

Changing Names


When I had a hospital visit last week the nurse looked at her schedule and said, “Hello, Mr. Alan.” I quickly realized that she had mistaken my first name for my last name, so I corrected her and we had a brief conversation about how my first name and last name could be interchangeable. But this got me thinking about the subject of names and how they change over time.

While the most common error that people make with my name is misspelling “Russell” by only having a single “s” or a single “l”, the name itself has not gone through too many spelling changes since it came into being a millennium ago. The original was spelled “Roussel” or “Rozel” in Normandy, France, but by the time family members went to England in 1066 under William the Conqueror, the spelling got anglicized into its current form. (*1)

The Pierpont Name

But there is a different story with my mother’s maiden name, Pierpont, and that’s what I’d like to explore in more detail here.

The original family name was “de Pierrepont” and was from Normandy, France in the late 900s. The “de” is from a Latin preposition which means “down, from, down from, off or concerning,” and “Pierrepont” has the meaning of “stone bridge” (Pierre means stone and pont means bridge), because there was a stone bridge in front of the family castle. So the name literally meant “from the stone bridge.”

Family members still living in France (my distant cousins, including a few with whom I am friends in Facebook), continue to have this last name. But a grandson of the original de Pierrepont went to England as part of the army of William the Conqueror. And it wasn’t long after that the family dropped the “de” part of the name, simply becoming “Pierrepont”. The family manor, Holme Pierrepont, was established in the 1200s (*2).

During the next 400 years that the family was in England, the Pierrepont spelling continued to dominate (probably because they were minor royalty). However, there were a few variations, including “Pierrepoint” (adding an “i”), “Perpoint” (*3) and “Perpoynt”. The name still persists in England to this day, the most recent “famous” family member being Albert Pierrepoint who was a hangman of renown (*4).

Around 1631, John Pierrepont came to America as part of the Great Migration. Early records mention the name as “Peirpoint” or even “Pearepoint”, but he changed his name to “Pierpont” and this is the spelling of the name that he passed along to his children (*5). This is the spelling that persisted in the US, but with one exception. In the late 1700s, one of the great-grandsons of John, Hezekiah Beers Pierpont, decided to adopt the original French spelling (minus the “de”) and changed his surname to Pierrepont (*6). This name can now be found in Brooklyn, NY, both in a street name and a prominent building. There are also a number of Pierpoint families in the US, but most of these are descendants of Henry Perpoynt who settled in the Maryland/Virginia area. The relationship between Henry and the New England Pierponts has not yet been determined (*7).

How Name Changes Happen

We now live in a very automated, computer-centric age. Your name is registered at birth and thus appears in several different government computer systems. The exact spelling is registered and it cannot be easily changed. Doing so is a time-consuming process and involves one of a number of different court scenarios (marriage, adoption, etc.). Whether going to school, getting a driver’s license, getting prescriptions filled, or a host of other daily activities, you must spell your name for their computer system – changing your name, even if in the process of a female getting married, is a complicated thing.

Thus, it’s difficult for those of us living in today’s society to consider what it was like before this automation. But for much of history, even of just the last millennium which we are considering here, things were much different. We are used to a near 100% literacy rate in the US. But the earliest figures I can find for the period in question is that the literacy rate in England in 1475 was only 5% (*8). With so few people being able to read/write, most communication would have been oral and anything written would not only have been “long hand,” but would have been based on what the individual said to the person keeping the records and how they were heard.

The first “automation” would have been the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg around this same time (1455) (*9). But few people would have been able to read it. And very few of these books were actually produced – only about 180 copies which took three years to print.

By the time the Pierpont family came to America, literacy in England was about 50%, and the Pierpont family, being of minor aristocracy, were almost certainly able to read and write. But everything was still hand-written. Also, the process of changing your name would have been as simple as deciding to change it, calling yourself by the new name, and using it whenever appropriate. Of course, there were still many processes which would have been others writing down what you said, so a variety of misspellings were apt to result. Also, there would have continued to be misinterpretations based on people trying to read what had been written in cursive.

Going from cursive writing to typing in a standard font would take another couple hundred years. It was not until the latter part of the 1800s that commercial typewriters came into use (*10), and they were not standardized until the early 1900s (roughly 100 years ago). It was only then that the problem of misinterpretation could be addressed.

However, there were still many processes where typing was not viable, one of them being the process of taking the census every ten years. Here, the census taker knocked on the door, usually talking to the wife (who would be home during the day), asking her questions and recording her answers (*11). He/she was not allowed to presume that she could read/write (even though the literacy rate was up to 80% by 1880), but had to continue to deal with the misinterpretations that could come – both by the wife’s interpretation of what the census taker was asking, and by his interpretation of what her answer was.

Thus, name changes came into being for a number of reasons. Sometimes is was in order to simplify/Americanize, like John Pierrepont shorting his name to Pierpont. Sometimes it was deliberate, like Hezekiah Pierpont wanting to restore the original French Pierrepont. Sometimes it was a mistake in recording by a census taker or recorder of a baptism and the revised name “stuck.” And since there were no computer systems to worry about back then, or government procedures to be followed, there was no “red tape” involved in making the name change.

I’ve run across my fair share of name changes, both in first and last names, during my genealogical research. One of the most interesting was when I was looking for information on one of my father’s cousins. Her name was Juanita but when I eventually found her birth records it was recorded as “Wanita” – based on how the name sounded, but by someone who was totally unfamiliar with pronunciation of the name. This is just one more of the roadblocks that we deal with in genealogical research.

*1 - gives the background on the area and manor near Dorset which bears this name. The name dates back to around the year 1200 when John Russell was a knight under Richard I. However, note that the original granting of the land (written in Latin) spelled the name “Russel” but the English translation spells it “Russell”.

*2 - gives some of the history of the area where the Pierrepont family settled in the 1200s.

*3 – The History of the Worthies of England, Volume 2, p. 215, Thomas Fuller and John Nichols, (available on Google books)

*4 - Albert (1905-1992), when he retired in 1956, was officially recognized as “the most efficient executioner in British history.” I’m not sure that I would want to have that job, but he did and was evidently very good at it.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Retirement – What’s That?

In the latest post in my sister’s blog (, she wrote “We had dreams of spending our retired years being spontaneous, getting out of town on a whim. Dreams of sitting and enjoying many more sunsets in our golden years. Now we are fairly certain that will not be our future.” She was writing that on the third anniversary of my brother-in-law being diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. Although that’s not what’s happened to me, I share those same feelings with her.

I “retired,” in the sense that I was no longer working for a living, in my late 50s, when changes at my employer made working no longer enjoyable and when I estimated that I would have as much income from pension and investments as I would have by working. My wife was still teaching, so we weren’t yet “free” to enjoy my less scheduled hours, but I thought that would only be a matter of a few years. But then a series of events changed all of that.

My wife taught for two more years, then decided to take a sabbatical. However, within a month, her mother began having falling incidents and we decided that she needed to devote some time to taking care of her mother. Since that was in Michigan, she essentially moved out there for the next year and a half while I “held down the fort” here in Pennsylvania. Then, when she finally came home after her mother passed away, she overnight transitioned from senior care to child care – going to New Jersey to help our son and daughter-in-law who had just had a difficult pregnancy.

Meanwhile, our daughter had gotten married. And since their finances were somewhat limited they were living with us in the space over our attached garage which we had designed several years earlier as a “mother-in-law apartment.” But only two months after helping my son and daughter-in-law, our daughter also delivered her first child, a grandson, and with both she and our son-in-law working, my wife and I jointly took on the role of child care during the day. Little did we yet imagine what that was going to turn into!

Fast forward another seven years, three more children (all of them boys!), and our child care duties have expanded to more than full-time. The last two were both preemies, so that was yet another wrinkle. Then, because our son-in-law was not willing to work to help support the family, at the beginning of this year our daughter asked him to leave the home until he was working at least 30 hours/week. He still comes by a few times a week and helps, but for the most part my wife and I have the responsibility of raising those four grandsons.

Don’t get me wrong – we love all our grandchildren. But when one’s day starts with getting them up in the morning, fixing breakfast, watching over all their activities, changing diapers (so looking forward to that ending in the near future!), overseeing homework, etc., it takes a lot of energy. And neither my wife nor I have as much energy as we did 30 years ago.

And there is no sign of it ending. The boys are ages 7, 5, 4, and 3. It’s going to be 15 years before the youngest will be off to college and by then we’ll be in our mid-80s. As my sister said, being spontaneous, acting on whims, sitting and enjoying the sunsets – I don’t envision those in our future.  

Retirement? What does that mean in this context? Certainly not the carefree life that I had envisioned. I no longer get paid for what I do, but if anything, I’m busier that I was back when I “worked for a living.” My calendar is filled with increasing numbers of doctor visits as our bodies age. And my wife and I have to coordinate our schedules since we both cannot be out at the same time. And other activities have to be planned well in advance, certainly not be spontaneous.

Yes, I do see changes coming. The end of diapers. The time when the youngest is also in school so the hours between the bus departing in the morning and meeting it at the end of the street in the afternoon will be more open. But I haven’t been able to think much beyond that. And by the time the youngest is off to college we’ll be in our mid-80s – assuming we’re still alive at that age.

Retirement? Yes, I will admit to sometimes being jealous of some of my friends who get to spend time travelling, sleeping in, doing things on the spur of the moment. But on the other hand, we are exactly where God wants us to be. We are surrounded by family who love us and whom we can love. We are able to use the skills that we’ve honed over the years to help raise another generation of young men.

Retirement? Perhaps what’s really wrong is the idealistic view that we have of it. Why should we think we can just stop working, sit back, and watch others slave away the way that we did for 40+ years? Rather, shouldn’t we be asking God, “What can I do now!” Instead of having the focus be on ourselves, maybe we need to keep the focus on God instead.

I’ve had other people of my age tell me, “I admire what you’re doing, I couldn’t do it!” And perhaps that's the point. My wife and I are still healthy enough to be able to do this. Yes, there are times when my joints ache. Yes, there I days that I look forward to having an afternoon nap (as long as it’s coordinated with my wife’s schedule since we can’t nap at the same time). But God has given us the strength to handle this, and as long as He continues to do so, then we will continue to follow His leading in our lives.

Retirement? I just have a new boss – and He will grant me a future pension with Him that’s worth far more than the monetary one that my earthly employer did.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

WWI Effects

I was recently doing some research on the residents of my hometown (Wolcott CT) who served in WWI. As part of that I came across a questionnaire that had been given to all the individuals in CT who served after the completion of their service. Besides a lot of demographic data, list of the places that they were, etc, there were a couple of questions on the last page that intrigued me.

To paraphrase the questions, they asked, “What have you learned from this experience” and “How has this effected your state of mind.” Not everyone took the time to answer these particular questions, but of those who did, it offers some interesting perspective into how these individuals thought nearly 100 years ago. In particular, I’d like to look at the responses of two individuals.

The responses to the two questions of the first individual are:

“That an American fighting man was equal to anything any country could put into the field. That the first four divisions of the Regular Army could and did prove superior to other units.”

“The effect has been encouraging. Believe America has a real future and believe her head and shoulders above any country on earth."

The response from the second individual are:

“My stay in France tended to broaden my views of life and to make me realize that people can live differently than we do here.

“I think more and show my feelings less. I would be more than mildly interested if we had another war and would enlist at once.”

There are two very different responses here – which interestingly are some of the same things that we discuss regarding US exchange students experiencing after their time abroad. The first individual has come back with a very nationalistic attitude, i.e. note his use of the words “superior”, “head and shoulders above”, etc. In contract, the second individual has returned with a much broader view of the world as noted by his recognition that other people live differently and that he should ponder these things rather than just “show his feelings” immediately when confronted with new situations.

As I look at my own perspective after having been abroad to many countries and experienced how people have different approaches to things, I’m much more like the second individual in that I value what others have to offer.

So, even though these are thoughts from individuals a century ago and under very different circumstances than my own (i.e. having gone to fight in a war), we can still learn from them.