The Grammarphobia Blog

A faux French quirk

Q: I recently read a review of A Death in Summer, the latest Benjamin Black mystery. The writer referred to “Benjamin Black” as the nom de plume of the Booker Prize-winning author John Banville. I think it’s silly to use a French term here when we have a perfectly fine English one, “pen name.” Your thoughts please?

A: We prefer “pen name” too, but nom de plume isn’t French. It’s as English as Big Ben, the Tower of London, and fish and chips.

In Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths, we discuss the unusual birth of this faux French expression.

The real French term for an assumed name is nom de guerre, which the British adopted in the late 17th century. But in the 19th century, British writers apparently thought the original French might be confusing.

One can see why nom de guerre, literally “war name,” could puzzle readers.

The French initially used it for the fictitious name that a soldier often assumed on enlisting, but by the time the British started using the expression, it could mean any assumed name— in English as well as French.

The fake-French nom de plume was introduced in English in the 19th century. An obscure Victorian novelist, Emerson Bennett, is responsible for the first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary.

In his 1850 novel Oliver Goldfinch, he writes that the title character is “better known to our readers as a gifted poet, under the nom de plume of ‘Orion.’ ”

Bennett could have used the word “pseudonym,” which we had borrowed from the French around the same time nom de plume was invented. But perhaps he felt “pseudonym” lacked a certain je ne sais quoi.

Whatever his reasons, nom de plume was a hit with the literary crowd— such a hit that it inspired an English translation, “pen name,” which made its debut in 1864 in Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language.

The old French expression nom de guerre is still with us, though.

It’s defined in English dictionaries as “pseudonym” or “fictional name,” but these days it seems to be used most often for the sobriquets of terrorists (or freedom fighters, depending on your point of view).

In Origins of the Specious, we mention a story about the poet Coleridge, who not only used noms de plume (“Cuddy” and “Gnome,” among others) but once had a nom de guerre as well.

When a young lady refused his hand, the rejected suitor dropped out of Cambridge and enlisted in the Fifteenth Light Dragoons under the assumed name “Silas Tomkyn Comberbache.” (He’d seen the name Comberbache over a door in Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London.)

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