What’s in a name?

I was very interested in an article in today’s newspaper by Siri Hustvedt whose book ‘The Blazing World’ is out now in paperback. The article was about how our names affect our lives, and how sometimes for various reasons people choose to change their names.

I am very interested in names anyway, but I am fascinated by the subject of nom-de-plumes, feather names, pen names… I’ve never taken one, although I do chose to write under my maiden name rather than my married name. In my novel ‘Magick’ and my next book ‘Raddy and Syl’ the main character Thomas sometimes chooses to hide his identity and calls himself Taras Radwinski who was his ancestor. In ‘Raddy and Syl’ Thomas thinks a lot about identity, and assuming names and taking on different characters and personalities.

In Siri Hustvedt’s article, she mentions several well-known people who have adopted other names, and as a writer she thinks mainly of other writers:

  • Daniel Nathan and Manford Lepofsky changed their names to Frederick Dannay and Manfred Bennington – they wrote novels under the name of Ellery Queen, and I’ve read quite a few of those!
  • Armantine Lucile Aurore Dupin became Georges Sand
  • Mary Ann Evans wrote as George Elliot
  • Thomas Elmer Huff writes romances as Edwina Harlow
  • and of course J.K. Rowling very famously became Robert Galbraith and even provided her nom-de-plume with a fake biography
  • Charles Ludwig Dodgson wrote ‘An Elementary Treatise on Determinants’, as Lewis Carroll he wrote ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘Alice Through The Looking Glass’
  • Søren Kierkegaard wrote under different names – or did he just write from different characters points of view? I have no idea because I confess I have never rad anything by him. His pen names or alter egos include: Victor Eremita,  Judge William, Johannes de Silentio, Constantine Constantius, Vigilius Haufniensis, Nicolaus Notabene, Hilarius Bookbinder, Johannes Climacus and Anti-Climacus… Of all those  the one I might want to read just for the name itself is Hilarius Bookbinder (the singer Elkie Brookes changed her name from Elaine Bookbinder… nothing to do with Kierkegaard I’m sure)

Siri mentions that her own name is challenging to someone who is not Norwegian and plays with the idea of changing it… and considers the implication, the resonances, the interpretations which would be put on being Ted Svuth for example, or TD Tevush.

Her article doesn’t just list other writers’ pen names, she considers how names affect us all and quotes a 2014 study by PhD students in America who wrote letters to the ‘best’ universities in the USA, same letter but different assumed names. In this American study ‘white’ sounding male names received the best response.

In ‘Raddy and Syl’ Thomas investigates the disappearance of a woman called Jane Smith, and becomes doubtful that her name actually is that. “Was there any such person as Jane? Jane Smith, it’s such a nondescript name, not being rude to anyone who is called Jane Smith, it’s sort of like a universal, like John Smith… I‘d looked up Jane Smith on MyTimeMachine (the fictitious genealogy site Thomas uses) and there were nearly eight thousand of them born in roughly the age I thought she might be…”

Links to Siri’s site and her Amazon page:



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