I. What is a Pseudonym?
A pseudonym (pronounced SOO-do-nim) is a fake name that a person or group uses for a special purpose. It might be a stage name or a pen name, like “Dr. Seuss,” the alias used by a hacker, or the alter ego of a superhero, like “Batman.”
II. Examples of a Pseudonym
There are lots of people you don’t know by their real names; you just don’t know it! Many famous people have used pseudonyms, such as the artist “Banksy,” whose real name is still unknown, sports figures such as “Sugar Ray Leonard,” whose real name was Ray Charles Leonard, and criminals like “Butch Cassidy,” whose real name was Robert Leroy Parker. Very often pseudonyms are catchier than the person’s real name, and often they reflect the person’s personality, style, or profession. And sometimes they disguise gender or ethnicity.
III. Types of Pseudonym
a. Pen / Stage names
Pen names, or noms de plume, and stage names are usually invented to be easily remembered and pronounced. Sometimes artists use them to distinguish themselves from someone else in the same field with a similar name, and sometimes they’re used specifically to disguise identity. Women in the 19th century often wrote under male pseudonyms in order to be taken seriously, and sometimes established writers use a pseudonym in order to try writing in a different genre without being judged by their other work.
b. User names
These, of course, are the names people chose to go by on various websites. They may not seem like stage names to you, but these are fake names that we give ourselves for a specific purpose–one of them being to ensure anonymity—so they are also pseudonyms.
c. Nom de guerre / Party names / Cadre names
The term nom de guerre means “war name,” and originated with the French army. Your “war name” was like your ID number, and would include your first and last name, followed by your city, or some trait you had, like “Phineas Gordon the Tallest.” Pseudonyms like these are still used for security purposes, and to protect families from revenge. Some revolutionary leaders, such as Lenin, the Russian Communist revolutionary of the early 20th century, adopt their nom de guerre as their proper name when the fight is over.
d. Dummy Corporations / Corporate Shells
These fake names are used by criminals to impersonate people who do not exist in any way to commit fraud without a paper trail returning to themselves. For example, a house may be advertised for rent by its owner, “John Jackson,” who will only use e-mail and says that he is gone on business, but he will send the keys to anyone who mails him $700 in a cashier’s check for the security deposit. However, a dozen people can respond to this ad, four of them can fall for it, and someone will make almost three thousand dollars in one week, even though there is no John Jackson, and there is no house for rent.
e. Regnal Names
In many monarchies, the new leader chooses a new name for themselves. They may want to establish some connection to the previous leader (like “Henry the VIth,” born Alfred Frederick Arthur George, who took the throne of his father, Henry the Vth). In Japan, the emperor is never known by his given name, but only by the name of the era. After his death, his name is legally changed to the name of the era.
f. Anonymity pseudonyms / Multiple-use names
Sometimes a group of people will all use one pseudonym for a certain purpose. In one such case, the name “Nicolas Bourbaki” was adopted by mathematicians in the 1930s to stand for their collective efforts in the field of mathematics. A multiple-use pseudonym may be used for other reasons, though; film directors use the name “Alan Smithee” when they lose creative control of a movie and no longer want to be associated with it.
IV. The Importance of Pseudonyms
A pseudonym can say a lot about a person. Did you know that Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice in Wonderland, is a pseudonym? He was also a mathematician and didn’t want the fanciful, surreal Alice books to be associated with his published mathematical work. His real name was Charles Dodgson. So, his choice to use a pseudonym tells us something about him. The Brontë sisters, two now-famous 19th century writers, first published under the name Bell because their fiction was inspired by their neighbors, and they didn’t want anyone to recognize themselves and get mad!
Characters in stories can also have pseudonyms, such as Darth Vader (for Annikin Skywalker); as in this case, a character’s use of a pseudonym can be very meaningful. As a writer, you may use them sometimes to show something about a character.
V. Examples of Pseudonyms in Literature
Literature is filled with pseudonyms, both for authors and for characters. J.K. Rowling chose to abbreviate her name to J.K. as her pseudonym in order to “liberate” her image from people’s preconceptions, while her villainous character Lord Voldemort, chose his pseudonym in order to divorce himself from his former identity.
A classic example of the use of pseudonyms was in The Three Musketeers, in which the three main characters, vigilantes, each acted under a false name in order to protect their identities and families. Pseudonyms are very common in adventures and fantasies. For example, in The Lord of the Rings, nearly every important character has one or more pseudonyms, such as Strider (real name Aragorn), Gollum (real name Smeagol), and Treebeard (his real name is unpronounceable by humans!)
We also see pseudonyms constantly in the superhero genre, for both good guys and bad, such as Superman (Clark Kent) and Batman’s arch-enemy, The Penguin (real name Oswald Chesterfield Cobblepot).
VI.Examples of Pseudonyms in Pop Culture
Authors sometimes use pseudonyms to escape their popularity, and find out if they can be as well-loved for talent as they are for fame. Most notably, J.K. Rowling released a mystery novel under the name Robert Galbraith, and though it was well-reviewed, the woman responsible for seven of the top 10 best-selling children’s books in history (the Harry Potter series, of course) only sold 1,500 copies in her first three months as Robert Galbraith.
Another pseudonym famous in pop culture is the stage name Marilyn Monroe, whose real name (Norma Jean) has become well known since her death. Of course, there’s also Madonna, The Artist Formerly Known as Prince, Sting, David Bowie, and countless other pop music pseudonyms.
VII. Related Terms
An epithet is a tag further defining a person or group of people. They can be derogatory or complimentary, from “Richard the lion-hearted” to “fat boy Paulie.”
This is Greek for “name differently,” and refers to the act of referring to someone by a nickname or epithet instead of their real name. In The Middle Ages, Aristotle was also commonly known as “the Philosopher.” The main distinction between antonomasia and epithet is that this is not an added tag, but a total substitution.
c. Alter ego
“Alter ego” means “second self,” and is usually regarded as a distinct personality housed within an individual, but is also used to refer to the alternate identities of superheroes and villains.
d. Secret Identity
A secret identity is an alter ego unknown to the public; the idea was made popular by American comic books.