Pseudonyms (SOO-duh-nims) are fictitious names used by groups or individuals. People choose to use pseudonyms for a variety reasons, ranging from privacy to marketing. There are also several types of pseudonyms. Authors publish under pen names, for example, while actors and musicians perform under stage names.
The word pseudonym traces back to the Greek pseudōnymos, meaning “falsely named.”
Types of Pseudonyms
- Aliases: Aliases are alternative names that individuals sometimes use. The Dark Knight is an alias for Batman, just like 007 is an alias for James Bond.
- Collective Names: Some authors and groups use collective names to publish or perform under a single identity. James S.A. Corey is a collective pen name used by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, authors of The Expanse Carolyn Keene is the collective name under which the Nancy Drew ghostwriters were published. Music groups like the Beatles and the Ramones also use collective names.
- Multiple-Use Names: Some pseudonyms are used multiple times for multiple people. Jane Doe and John Smith refer to people whose real names are unknown; these names are also used to safeguard people’s identities, often in legal proceedings.
- Pen Names: Called a nom de plume in French, pen names are literary pseudonyms used for publication. These names appear on covers, title pages, and bylines.
- Regnal Names: These are the names used by monarchs, popes, emperors, and similar figures during their reign and afterward. George VI of England was born Albert but assumed the regnal name George upon becoming king.
- Stage Names: These names are used by actors, musicians, and other artists who appear in the public eye. Actors must also consider the Screen Actors Guild rule that no two members can have the same working name, meaning an actor whose name is already taken must adopt a stage name.
- Usernames: Also called handles and screen names, these are the names people use to conduct online activity. Though some use their real names, many people choose fake names to protect their privacy and anonymity.
Why People Use Pseudonyms
To Conceal Their Identity
A person might opt for a pseudonym to avoid bias, protect their privacy or that of their family, remain anonymous, or even hide criminal activity. Benjamin Franklin published many letters and articles using pen names like Silence Dogood.
This was common in the 18th century, as it allowed a writer to present opinions that were slanderous or illegal, or play devil’s advocate, without fear of retribution or a tarnished reputation. Pseudonyms are still used for similar purposes today. Fake names are part of internet culture; users often choose made-up account names to protect their anonymity.
To Avoid Discrimination
Women have long used masculine pen names to avoid the sexism, misogyny, and gender discrimination that has historically prevented publishers and readers from taking their work seriously. Some women authors, like S.E. Hinton and A.S. Byatt, publish under their initials for the same purpose.
In addition, many writers and performers anglicize their names to avoid racial or cultural discrimination. Ramón Estévez chose the stage name Martin Sheen for this reason.
To Make a Fresh Start
Many people use pseudonyms to escape baggage associated with their real names. J.K. Rowling published her crime novel The Cuckoo’s Calling under the pen name Robert Galbraith to escape the expectations that came with writing Harry Potter, the best-selling book series in history.
To Avoid Overexposure
Conventional publishing wisdom holds that readers value quality over quantity, so writers should avoid publishing too many books in quick succession. Stephen King adopted the pen name Richard Bachman in the 1970s partly because his publisher was wary of overexposing his name on the market; King also wanted to see how his books fared when published under an unknown name.
To Increase Aesthetic or Commercial Appeal
Performers often choose stage names that match their image or increase their marketability. Hip-hop musicians often use stage names that complement their image, and Korean pop groups often use names with English words to increase their international appeal. Actress Lucille LaSueur became Joan Crawford after an executive complained that LaSueur sounded too much like sewer.
To Distinguish Themselves
People also use pseudonyms when their real names are already famous for another reason. Actor Nicolas Cage changed his last name from Coppola to avoid comparisons to his uncle, director Francis Ford Coppola. Likewise, singer Katy Perry was born Katheryn Hudson, but she assumed her stage name to avoid confusion with actress Kate Hudson.
To Achieve Euphony or Ease of Use
Some pseudonyms are chosen because they’re easier to use or more pleasing to the ear. Singer-songwriter Jason Desrouleaux uses the stage name Jason Derulo because this phonetic spelling is easier for fans to spell and pronounce.
Notable Writers with Pseudonyms
- Anne Rice—real name Howard Allen Frances O’Brien
- bell hooks—real name Gloria Jean Watkins
- Seuss—real name Theodor Seuss Geisel
- Elena Ferrante—real name unknown
- George Eliot—real name Mary Ann Evans
- George Orwell—real name Eric Arthur Blair
- Joseph Conrad—real name Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski
- Lewis Carroll—real name Charles Lutwidge Dodgson
- Mark Twain—real name Samuel Clemens
- Henry—real name William Sydney Porter
- Voltaire—real name François-Marie Arouet
Further Resources on Pseudonyms
Check out Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms to discover more famous authors who published under pen names—and why.
Author Helen Sedwick addresses how to choose and set up a pseudonym.
- Alter Ego