The pseudoscience of pseudonyms: Tips for pen-name, stage-name, or nickname creation


Now is the time of year where you can read about all the top baby names from 2016, and all the predicted baby name trends of 2017. But as I was perusing those lists, I saw a news story about Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events, which Netflix is producing, and it got me thinking: Daniel Handler’s pseudonym Lemony Snicket is perhaps my favorite pen-name of all time.

It’s a special opportunity and privilege to get to name another human, and a lot has been written about how to pick of the best baby name. But it’s a far stranger exercise to give yourself a new name. Maybe you’re an author, or a pop star. Maybe you’re a secret agent creating a fake identity, or a criminal on the lam, or a college freshman reinventing yourself, or all of the above. Either way, here are 6 considerations that might help!

1) Phonetics. First things first, you want your new name to sound good. To flow off the the tongue like fondue. Rappers Khalif and Aquil Brown perform under the name Rae Sremmurd, which is the name of their home label “Ear Drummers,” backwards. That is an example of what NOT to do. Lemony Snicket scores very high in this category — that name is so darn fun to say, and the combination of hard and soft consonants is magical.

2) Meaning (implicit or explicit). Just like with a company or product name, your new name should be the epitome of your brand. The connotations you want to imbue in your name can be obvious and overt, or almost subconscious. You can get pretty quickly from the name Nicki Minaj to the phrase ménage à trois. Stevie Wonder, Freddie Mercury, Foxy Brown, John Legend… pretty clear connotations to those names, I would say. Then there are softer, subtle suggestions. I would also argue that the impulse to use a common first name as a last name among male performers — Bob Dylan, Elton John (though his given name, Reginald Kenneth Dwight also fits the bill, with a full three consecutive first names), Toby Keith, Brett Michaels, Steven Tyler, John Stewart and many more — conveys an implicit familiarity, personableness, and often folksiness. (Billy Joel, Paul Simon, the Jonas brothers, and others fit into this category, though those are their given names.)

So ask yourself. What is your personal brand, and what do you want people to feel when they hear your name?

3) Search Engine Viability. If you are a pop-star or author, you want your name at the top of the search results. If you are a criminal on the lam, you want a name that blends in. John Doe is not a great pop-star name. Lady Gaga is not a good name for someone infiltrating a foreign government. Frank Ocean is a great pseudonym because it involves two common, memorable words that are nevertheless extremely rare to find together. That ensure that early in his career, his name would be at the top if “Frank Ocean” was searched. (Great job picking Frank over Arctic.) Also, don’t forget to pick a name where the exact .COM domain is available!

Searchability considerations are also why only the most iconic celebrities can get away with only using a common first name, like Madonna or Rhianna. I seem to remember Lindsay Lohan saying a while back that she wanted to be known simply as Lindsay, but I can’t find any evidence on the internet. Anyhow, you get the idea.

4) Memorability. This is a fairly intangible quality because memorability in enhanced by a strong performance in the other categories listed. Here are some other ideas: you can use shock value to create memorability if you’re in the right industry (looking for a pro-wrestling name?), or out of left field strangeness (Chad Ocho Cinco and Metta World Peace come to mind). You can incorporate punctuation (Ke$ha, of course) or you can use repetition (Lady Gaga), alliteration (Meek Mill, Harry Houdini, Marilyn Monroe), internal or external rhyme (Frankie Valli, Norah Jones), or any number of other linguistic tricks.

5) Industry-specific logistics. You may want your pseudonym to be as advantageous for your particular industry as it is mellifluous. For example, you may want to pick a name that begins with “a” so that will appear at the top of an alphabetical list. Sadly, many female authors use androgynous pseudonym or even male name (like George Elliot) because of the implicit bias towards male authors that many publishers unfortunately harbor. (Unless, of course, they write erotica. In that genre, it is not uncommon for male authors to adopt female pseudonyms, because consumers are more likely to buy erotica written by authors with traditionally female names.) Or, you can go by your initials, like N.K. Jemisen or J.K. Rowling. Additionally, some performers or comedians also unfortunately feel the need to adopt a less ethnic sounding name to avoid potential racism, or because their last name might be difficult for their audience to say, spell, or pronounce. (E.g., Mindy Kaling was born Vera Mindy Chokalingam.)

6) Backstory. Having a solid backstory to your name can enhance memorability, and can also make it easier for you to decide on a name. Miley Cyrus adopted Miley because she used to be called Smiley. The name Lemony Snicket was an inside joke among Daniel Handler’s college buddies. Even if you are simply adopting your middle name as your first or last name, having a personal connection to the name is important both for others to understand, and for your own identity transition to be smooth.

That about sums it up. To all those future rock-stars and secret agents out there…Happy pseudo-naming!

Maybe you’re an author, or a pop star. Maybe you’re a secret agent creating a fake identity, or a criminal on the lam, or a college freshman reinventing yourself, or all of the above. Either way, here are 6 considerations that might help!


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