boston.com News your connection to The Boston Globe
THE EXAMINED LIFE

What's in a pseudonym?

ADRIAN ROOM, a self-described "onomastician," or student of the origin and form of names, is the author of some 40 reference books, including dictionaries of coin names, astronomical names, and streetnames. But his crowning achievement has got to be the "Dictionary of Pseudonyms" (McFarland), which has just been republished in a revised, much-enlarged 4th edition. The new version boasts almost 11,000 screen names, stage names, noms de guerre and plume, handles, sobriquets, and monikers -- from "Eight is Enough" TV star Willy Aames (who changed his last name from Upton to ensure a place at the top of any alphabetical billing) to the English novelist Louis Zangwill (who wrote under the name Z.Z. for precisely the opposite reason).

"Pseudonyms" is that rarest of books: a compulsively readable reference work. One is constantly surprised and confounded by individual name-changes: Baseball's Billy Martin was really Alfred Manuel Pesano? British double agent Kim Philby was nicknamed after Rudyard Kipling's novel? Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, considered anagramatically renaming himself Edgar Cuthwellis instead?

Some curious trends also emerge from the data. For example, few who know of Mel Brooks, Marilyn Monroe, or Spike Jonze would be surprised to learn that an actor had ditched a given name. But Ideas nevertheless finds it unsettling that Adam West (ne William West Anderson), who played the caped crusader on the 1960s TV show "Batman," wasn't the only cast member with a secret identity. Burt Ward (Robin), it turns out, was once Herbert John Gervais Jr., Burgess Meredith (the Penguin) was George Burgess, and Alan Napier (Alfred the Butler) was Alan Napier-Clavering.

(Speaking of Monroe, why did Elton John make such a point of calling her "Norma Jean," anyway, when his own name is actually Reginald Dwight?)

One may be perfectly comfortable with the fact that such august writers as Voltaire (Franois Marie Arouet) and Stendhal (Marie-Henri Beyle) used pen names. But it's still titillating to discover their lesser-known pseudonyms: Firmin Abauzit, Dominico Zapata, and (in English) Dr. Good Natur'd Wellwisher, among 170 others in the case of Voltaire; and Dominique, Baron de Cutendre, and William Crocodile, among some 200 others in the case of Stendhal. And Room includes a special section on those -- including Brigitte Bardot, Ava Gardner, and Adolf Hitler -- whose real names are often taken to be pseudonyms, as well as refuseniks like Frank Sinatra, Sandra Bullock, and Cloris Leachman who were urged to adopt an assumed name but wouldn't.

Room also includes an appendix of "Terms Relating to Pseudonymy," including geonym (name based on a geographical feature, such as the signature Cotton Mather used for an 1872 treatise: "By one of the ministers in Boston"), phrenonym (name based on an abstract or moral quality, such as that of abolitionist Sojourner Truth, born Isabella Baumfree), and floating name (a name, like Ideas, used by different writers in the same publication).

All things considered, it's enough to make one wonder if one really knows anybody at all.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES
 
Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives