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What is a Pseudonym?

By R. Kayne
Updated: May 23, 2024

A pseudonym is a fictitious name most often associated with authors, though actors, singers, rappers, and even those in organized crime often use a pseudonym in lieu of the birth name. Pseudonyms are also used for practical reasons when the real name is not known, as in the case of the County Coroner labeling an unidentified body as a "John Doe" or a "Jane Doe."

Pseudonyms, or pen-names, are used in literature for a number of reasons, but most importantly for marketing. An author's readership expects his or her books to fall within a specific genre. If the author pens a novel outside that genre a pseudonym will keep the work separate. That way, the writer can build a fan base in both genres without disappointing fans with work that falls outside the realm of expectation. This facilitates fan loyalty, which translates to sales, and that keeps publishers happy.

Other authors like sisters Pamela and Mary O'Shaughnessy collaborate on fictional crime novels releasing them under the pseudonym of Perri O'Shaughnessy, a combination of their first names with a nod to Perry Mason.

Female authors sometimes assume an androgynous pseudonym or merely use their initials if they believe their gender might be a deterrent to gaining a readership. One such example is Joanne Kathleen Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, who has stated publicly that [when her work was still unknown] she didn't believe little boys would be so apt to pick up a book written by a woman, and for those who did, they might get teased for liking it. She avoided the potential pitfall to success by simply leaving gender out of her pen-name. (Once her work became famous many boys were indeed surprised to learn that "J.K. Rowling" was a woman.)

Actors, singers and rappers often take a pseudonym (stage name) to create a persona different than their legal names would evoke. Norma Jeane Mortenson (then Baker) became Marilyn Monroe. Roy Herald Scherer Jr. became Rock Hudson. Marshall Mathers became Eminem. Often pseudonyms are legally adopted as replacements for the original name, especially in the entertainment industry.

Someone might also take a pseudonym for protection, as in the case of a whistle-blower. One of the most famous pseudonyms of the last century was Deep Throat, the unknown source that provided inside information regarding the Watergate scandal to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward. The identity of Deep Throat remained a matter of speculation for over 30 years, until 31 May 2005, when former secret service official W. Mark Felt made history, by publicly claiming the pseudonym.

Pseudonyms that function closer to nicknames (names that are descriptive) are often taken among gang members where they provide a degree of anonymity. Organized crime also uses nicknames, often embedded in the actual name, such as Jimmy "The Weasel" Fratianno, Charles "Lucky" Luciano, and Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By Sunny27 — On Feb 03, 2011

Sunshine31 -I agree with you. This article was really fun to read. I can understand why a lot of these celebrities seek pseudonymous because they really need to protect their privacy.

People sometimes feel that it is their right to know everything about these celebrities’ lives, but they really don’t have that right.

They are playing a persona us and they are entitled to their privacy. Many celebrities have a pseudonym list that they use in addition to their stage name so that they can check into hospitals or hotels without the paparazzi knowing it.

By sunshine31 — On Jan 31, 2011

SurfNturf -I know that a lot of famous people often change their names to a more commercial sounding name that will make them more successful.

It is usually a name that is catchy and easy to remember.

For example some cool pseudonyms are Lucille Ball for Dianne Belmont, Julie Andrew for Julia Elizabeth Wells, Lauren Bacall for Betty Joan Peske, Coco Chanel for Gabriel Bonheur Chanel, Tony Curtis for Bernard Schwartz, Bob Hope for Leslie Townes Hope, and Al Pacino for Alfredo James Pacino.

I think that it is really fun looking up celebrities’ real names.

By surfNturf — On Jan 29, 2011

A really clever pseudonym is Charlie Sheen for Carlos Irwin Estevez. His brother Emilo Estevez who is also an actor did not choose a pseudonym because he went by his real name.

Charlie Sheen felt that this name would get him more roles than his birth name. He obviously got more work than his brother so there might be some truth to that theory.

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