Category Archives: Names

Why is it called Omicron?

The New York Times explains it all:

“When the W.H.O. began to name emerging variants of the coronavirus, they turned to the Greek alphabet — Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and so on — to make them easier to describe. The first “variant of concern,” Alpha, was identified in Britain in late 2020, soon followed by Beta in South Africa.

“But veterans of American sorority and fraternity life might have noticed the system has skipped the next two letters in the alphabetical order: Nu and Xi.

“Officials thought Nu would be too easily confused with “new,” but the next letter, Xi, is a bit more complicated. W.H.O. officials said it was a common last name, and therefore potentially confusing. Some noted that it is also the name of China’s top leader, Xi Jinping.

“A spokesman for the W.H.O. said the organization’s policy was designed to avoid “causing offense to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional, or ethnic groups.”

“Next in line? Omicron.”

From Omicron: What Is Known – and Still Unknown by Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, Dec 2, 2021

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Presidents’, Presidents, or President’s Day?

Gilbert Stuart Williamstown Portrait of George Washington / Wikimedia Commons

Gilbert Stuart Williamstown Portrait of George Washington / Wikimedia Commons

Well, which is it? Presidents Day, Presidents Day or Presidents Day? Is the name of the American public holiday, which we’ll be celebrating on Monday, spelled with an apostrophe or not? And assuming it is a possessive day, i.e. belonging to either the first or all of our presidents, where should the punctuation be placed accordingly? Continue reading

Why did David Cornwell choose “Le Carré” as his nom de plume?

David Cornwell, aka John Le Carré

David Cornwell, the master of espionage thrillers, wrote under an assumed name for a simple and fitting reason, which he explains in his own words below. But when John Le Carré was asked in interviews over the years how he came up with his nom de plume, he would claim somewhat evasively (and he has admitted to his duplicity in this matter) that he couldn’t remember the reasoning behind it; that the mystery of his name was in keeping with the work of his younger self and his fictional protagonists, and was anyway lost in the corners of his faded memory.

However, in two rare interviews – in 2008 and 2010 respectively – he surprisingly came clean on the subject. (Assuming we believe him…) First, in a conversation with Mark Lawson for the BBC, when asked about the story behind and inspiration for his assumed name, he gave the following explanation:

MARK LAWSON: “Of course it was entirely appropriate that you as a – as an intelligence officer, a spy, you were using a cover identity, a pseudonym – but you had to: that was a professional requirement?”

JOHN LE CARRÉ: “Well it wasn’t a professional requirement to be John Le Carré: that was just the ethic of the business. If I had been at the regular foreign service, the same thing would have applied. If you wrote a book about butterflies in those days, as David Cornwell, you had to find another name to publish under: that was the ethic of the time. Choosing Le Carré: it was an erratic, weird thing. I went to Victor Gollancz, who was my first publisher, and said: ‘Victor, I have to choose a pseudonym.’ And he said, ‘Well, my boy, the best thing you can do is choose two good Anglo-Saxon syllables – like Chuck Smith, or something like that: that would be good.’ And I thought, no I won’t do that. What I need is a name that is optically arresting – like N-G-A-I-O Marsh. And I made up a name with three bits, and an acute accent at the end. And it’s also a coded name: carré in French means – er – a balle carré is where the girls ask the boys to dance; carré also means “check suit”; and at roulette, if you have a numero carré, you put a chip on each corner of one number. So it had some nice little – it was a little “inward joke” – and I never thought I was going to have to live with it on that scale.”

Two years later, when he appeared on Democracy Now! in conversation with Amy Goodman, she posed the same question – and he offered two of the same French ‘nuggets’ that he had given to Lawson: the girl-led dance and the roulette bet. But while leaving out the checked suit, on this occasion he threw in a further sense of the word carré – which I happen to think is the most amusing and fitting and slightly dubious reason for his chosen French moniker, which I reckon probably sealed the deal for David Cornwell. The excerpt from their conversation transcript follows:

AMY GOODMAN: “Explain where John le Carré came from.”

JOHN LE CARRÉ: “Well, I’ve told a lot of lies about that in my time, I have to confess. I began writing when I was still in the British Foreign Service, and it was then understood that even if you wrote about butterfly collecting, you used another name. So the fact that I was in a secret department does not play a part.

“I think I decided that I needed three pieces to a name, that they would arrest the “I” and put an accent on the last part. Then the word carré in French has a bunch of ambiguous meanings. A balle carrée, for example, is a dance where the ladies ask the men to dance. Carré at roulette, if you put a numéro carré, you put a counter on each corner of a number. And so it goes on. And I think an homme carré is a little bit of a dubious guy. That seemed to me to suit me perfectly at that time.”

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Here are some of the various terms we use to describe an assumed name in different contexts. Please add any I’ve missed in the comments section below.

  • AKA (acronym: “also known as”; used for nicknames and aliases)
  • anonym (an anonymous person or publication)
  • handle (informal: a name or nickname; often a username on social media and online forums)
  • moniker
  • nickname
  • nom de guerre (an assumed name under which a person engages in combat or some other activity or enterprise)
  • nom de plume (an assumed name used by a writer instead of their real name)
  • pen name
  • pseudonym (a fictitious name, especially one used by an author)
  • stage name (a name assumed for professional purposes by an actor or other performer)

The ups and downs of hurricane naming

Hurricane Florence makes landfall / Wikimedia CommonsHurricane names are curious — they’re often so strangely obscure. How are they named, and who names them? Why do they have names at all? And is there ever a downside to naming these mega-storms? It might not be good news for a few sorry souls … Continue reading

In the news (April 11): a typeface makeover, a capital city name-change, a multilingual pop artist & more

In recent language news: a trilingual pop artist, singing trilingually; a dating trend gets a trendy name; a capital city changes its name; a typeface makeover; and more … Continue reading

A rapper goes mononymous

Wikipedia Commons

Back in 2013, the one-and-only Jay-Z dropped his hyphen and decided to become known by his two names. (See Glosso’s earlier post, “Jay Z no longer mononymous”.) Then, four years later, he popped the hyphen back in, and returned to his one-named identity (see “The Return of Jay-Z’s hyphen“.) Today, another unique rapper has done the same thing and assumed a single moniker. In Kanye West’s case, he has become “Ye.” Continue reading

The Many Nicknames of Donald J. Trump


“Rocket Man”, “Lyin’ Ted”, “Crooked Hillary”, “Crazy Bernie”, “Pocahontas”: These are just a few of the many monikers that — having been thrown in the faces of his political rivals and personal nemeses since climbing into his little political sandbox — have earned 45 his only rather dubious oratory honor: that of being President of Nicknames. But, Mr. Don John, it works both ways …

Yesterday, Georgetown professor Michael Eric Dyson, speaking at the funeral of Aretha Franklin, lambasted the “orange apparition” for having the nerve and temerity to claim that the Queen of Soul had once worked for him. “You lugubrious leech, you dopey doppelgänger of deceit and deviance, you lethal liar, you dimwitted dictator, you foolish fascist.” That’s how Mr Dyson addressed POTUS in his eulogy. Here’s an A to Z* of other name-pies — alliterative, uncannily descriptive, and just downright witty — that have been thrown in the face of our reigning Cheese Doodle by celebrated and even distinguished members of the media and public figures of note. Sic and cited.

(*missing only J for Joker, N for Nobody, Q for QLF – pardon my French, and X, Y, Z for End Game)

Nicknames bestowed by media figures: Continue reading

Answers to yesterday’s quiz about country names

Here are the answers to yesterday’s quiz about country names. (There are 195 countries in the world, if you include the 193 members of the UN and two observer states. Of these 195 nations, there are 41 with more vowels* than consonants in their names. Here are four questions about those names.)

1. What is the longest country name of this type?

The longest country name with more vowels than consonants is Equatorial Guinea, with 16 letters. Coming a close second is Papua New Guinea, with 14.

2. What is the shortest country name of this type? (hint: there’s more than one)

There are five countries with five letters in their names, of which three are vowels. They are
Haiti, India, Nauru, Palau, and Samoa.

3. Which continent houses most of the countries with this name type?

Africa wins in this category, hands down, with 15 countries having vowel-dominated names. They are: Ageria, Cote d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mauritania, Mauritius, Namibia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Somalia, and Tunisia.

Europe comes second, with seven — or eight if you include Georgia in Europe.

4. Which letter of the alphabet starts most of these country names?

“A” and “E” tie here, with five country names each.

A starts Albania, Algeria, Armenia, Australia and Austria.
E starts Equador, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Estonia and Ethiopia.

* y is not counted as a vowel for the purposes of this quiz