Sunday, April 09, 2006

April 9: Pseudonym Day

On this day in 1859, Samuel Langhorne Clemens (Mark Twain) received his steamboat pilot’s license. As a 23-year-old, Clemens chose the life of a pilot over the life of a writer. Fortunately he eventually turned his attention back to writing. The big river, however, as all his readers know, never left him. In fact, for his pseudonym (pen name) he selected a term from the jargon of the riverboat pilots. The boatman’s call "Mark Twain" means that the water is two fathoms deep, the minimum depth allowed for safe navigation of a steamboat.

Clemens first used his pseudonym two years after getting his pilot’s license when he was working as a journalist for the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise. The impact of the river on Twain can be seem most prominently in his masterpiece The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) and his autobiographical book Life on the Mississippi (1883).

The word pseudonym is from Greek, meaning false name. The French equivalent is nom de plume, meaning pen name.

Samuel Clemens is certainly not the first writer to assume a pseudonym. Some writers have been creative with their pen names by rearranging the letters in their actual name. For example, playwright George Bernard Shaw rearranged the letters in his middle and last name to create the pen name Redbarn Wash. Dr. Seus, pen name for Theodor Seuss Geisel, at one time wrote under the pen name Theo. Le Sieg. (Geisel backwards is Le Sieg) (1).

Take a look at the twelve names listed below. Do you recognize any of the names? Every other name listed, beginning with Lewis Carrol, is the pseudonym of a famous writer. Each name following a pseudonym is the writer's acutal name.

Lewis Carrol
Charles Lutwidge Dodgson
George Eliot
Mary Ann Evans
O. Henry
William Sydney Porter
George Orwell
Eric Arthur Blair
Hector Hugh Munro
Dr. Seuss
Theodor Giesel

Challenge: What's in a nym?
The eight words listed below are 'words about words.' See if you can match each word with its definition:


1. A term used to distinguish ideas or objects from innovations replacing or improving them, as in skim milk.

2. A word formed from the first letter from each word of a series of words, as in Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus: SCUBA.

3. A word with the opposite meaning of another word, as in love and hate.

4. A word with the same general meaning of another word, as in happiness and joy.

5. A word derived from a real or mythical person, as in the word boycott.

6. A word derived from a geographical place or region, as in the word hamburger.

7. A word that is pronounced the same as another but is different in meaning, as in the multiple meanings of the word set.

8. A word that is spelled the same as another but with a different meaning and pronunciation, as in the word entrance.

Quote of the Day: Uttering a word is like striking a note on the keyboard of the imagination. --Ludwig Wittgenstein

1. retronym 2. acronym 3. antonym 4. synonym 5. eponym 6. toponyn 7. homonym 8. heteronym

1 – Michaelsen, O. V. Words at Play: Quips, Quirks, & Oddities. New York: Sterling Publishing Co., Inc.: 1997.

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