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 - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kingston_Russell 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 - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holme_Pierrepont 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 - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albert_Pierrepoint. 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.