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Thursday, November 13, 2008


What is a pseudonym, and why is it used? Is it proper to use a pseudonym? These are some questions which I'd like to consider in this post, as I've been thinking about the issue a bit. I'm not an expert, and I don't understand it all, but I'd like to give my opinions upon the subject.

According to the dictionary, pseudonym means

a fictitious name used by an author to conceal his or her identity; pen name.

Why are pen names used? Throughout the years, pen names have been used in many different cases, for many different reasons. Usually they were to conceal the identity of the author, protecting him from possible harm, while enabling him to express his views. In American history, pseudonyms were extensively used by newspaper writers before, during, and after the Revolution. The authors of The Federalist Papers, a voluminous series of newspaper articles eventually published in book form, were written under the pen name Publius. They were actually written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay.

In that time period, most pseudonyms were of two aspects. One, a name denoting the general interest of the author, such as Publius, and most often of Latin or Greek descent. Second, a generalized author such as Letters from a Pennsylvania Farmer.

Pen names have also been used to popularize the author's work. When the writer of Silas Marner, a female, decided that the book would have better success if it appeared to be written by a man, she took the pen name George Elliott. The work turned out to be a great seller, although she had to deal with frauds who said they were the real George Elliott.

So, is using a pseudonym the right way to go? Well, let's look at the advantages and disadvantages of a pen name. Most notably, there can be no verification of the author's authenticity, and if he uses improper subjects, no correction can be given him. Pen names can also cause great mischief when a work is incorrectly assigned to another who had no hand in the writing. This can easily happen, and can cause great problems between friends.

Another disadvantage is that of general labels. Going back to Revolutionary times, a supposed "Letter from a New England Ship-maker" could actually be written by a wealthy Virginian, thus implying a set of views to one set of people different than what they believe in. The blogosphere's antonymous button has enabled many to post what they would never otherwise have done.

However, there are advantages. If a person does not want his name to be subject to public ridicule, or perhaps he could be subject to bodily harm by the opposing side, a pseudonym is a great way to publish opinions and argue the point without risking life and limb. Another example is this: say a newspaper publisher asks an employee to find a poem on a particular subject for the newspaper. Suppose that the employee then writes a poem, and submits this to his boss, attributing it to a pen name. He can then find out fully what his supervisor thinks of it, without having to worry that his boss's judgement was affected by a desire to not hurt his employee's feelings.

Although I am definitely not an expert on the matter, and don't fully understand all the facets, I would say that it can be proper to use pseudonyms as long as we are cautious about the proceeding.



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