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pseudonyms wordplay

Pseudonyms and wordplay, from Bono to the Brontës

With the discovery that mystery writer Robert Galbraith and Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling are one and the same, the massively successful novelist has become one of many known popular fiction writers—including Stephen King and Anne Rice—to employ a nom de plume, or pen name, masking the true identity behind their work.

There are several reasons why a public figure would use a pseudonym. Their given name could be difficult to spell or pronounce; a same-named person of equal or greater celebrity status might have gotten there first; or perhaps they just like the idea of creating a new name. In show business, performers frequently adopt a stage name to separate their public personae from their private lives. In the literary world, some authors prefer to have their name tied to a specific genre or brand and when their writing pursuits venture outside those parameters, they choose to affix a pen name to those new works.

When creative professionals use creative approaches toward nomenclature, they afford us another peek into their artistic psyches. Here are some examples in popular and literary culture of the linguistic play in “pseudo-naming”:

Alphabet soup

The Brontës – Sisters Charlotte, Emily, and Anne all struggled to gain literary attention as female writers in mid-19th century England. Each used pen names and, for their earliest works, applied the same convention to their creation: the first initial of the first and last name of each pseudonym was the same as the real writer’s name. They also swapped genders: Charlotte Brontë → Currer Bell; Emily Brontë → Ellis Bell; and Anne Brontë → Acton Bell. The sisters became brothers.

(It’s also been speculated that the sisters preferred to use noms de plume to hide the fact that several of the characters in their works were inspired by, or named after, their real life neighbors.)

Edward Gorey – This prolific American writer and illustrator was a fan of anagrams and authored many of his works under pseudonyms that rearranged the letters of his own name. Among the many anagrams he either used as noms de plume or created as fictitious authors are: Ogdred Weary, Regera Dowdy, Raddory Gewe, Dogear Wryde, E. G. Deadworry, Wardore Edgy, Groeda Weyrd, and Dewda Yorger. Gorey also wrote under the name Eduard Blutig, another linguistic play on his name—blutig is the German word for “bloody,” a synonym of “gory.”

Eminem – When it came time to choose a stage name, the Detroit rapper decided, like the Brontë sisters before him, to utilize his initials as inspiration. Marshall Mathers first took the name “M&M”—like the candy chocolate—as a teenager, and then later changed it to “Eminem,” a more orthographic representation of the initials’ pronunciation.

Thematically apt

Benjamin Franklin – From the time he was a child, the Founding Father and noted polymath used a variety of pseudonyms to write opinionated pieces which were published in a number of periodicals and other organizations. Franklin would usually create an identity to go along with each pen name and often used aptronyms to telegraph each author’s personality. These include: “Busy Body” (a female gossipmonger); “Benevolous” (who found it upon himself to correct negative statements about American colonists made in British newspapers); and “Anthony Afterwit” (a humor writer).

Borrowed language

Bono – The origin of the U2 frontman’s stage name can supposedly be found in Dublin at a hearing aid shop. The shop is appropriately called “Bono Vox,” which means “good voice” in Latin.

Wiz Khalifa – Born Cameron Jibril Thomas, this American rapper also borrowed from another language to form his stage name. Khalifa is Arabic for “successor”. Wiz is contracted from “wisdom,” and was part of a nickname he was given by his grandfather as a young boy.

Diablo Cody – The story of the American screenwriter’s nom de plume is as charming as many of the scripts she’s penned. While driving through the city of Cody, Wyoming—which itself was named after the famed “Buffalo Bill” Cody—road-tripping Brook Busey found herself listening to “El Diablo,” a song by 80s pop group Arcadia (and Spanish for “the devil”) on repeat. The occasion seemed to have had a lasting impression, as she adopted the name soon after.

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