Pen names have been used by hundreds of writers for dozens of reasons. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was shy, so he Latinized his first two names, then re-Anglicized and transposed them to become Lewis Carroll. François-Marie d’Arouet wanted a clean break from his family, so he made an anagram of his surname and added two letters indicating “the younger,” thus creating Voltaire. (He later used hundreds of other noms de plume). Jean-Baptiste Poquelin was fleeing creditors after a stay in debtors’ prison, so he adopted the name of a village in southern France and was suddenly Molière.
The Brontë sisters, Anne, Charlotte, and Emily thought they’d do better as novelists if readers believed they were men, so they issued their works, respectively, as Acton, Currer, and Ellis Bell. (Brontë itself was an invention of their Irish father, who thought it more elegant than his real name, Brunty.) Benjamin Franklin was trying to be funny when he called himself Silence Dogood, and Erle Stanley Gardner didn’t want readers to tire of his prolific mystery novels, so he signed some of them A. A. Fair.
How William Sydney Porter came to be known as O. Henry can be explained (or not) by several theories—one of them possibly accurate. Porter used the name O. Henry—a “pen name” in more than one sense—on a story written while he was serving a federal prison term in Ohio for embezzling from an Austin bank. The reasons for a convict to use a nom de plume seem obvious. But where did the name come from?
William Trevor, in the The World of O. Henry writes that when Porter was in prison there was a guard captain named Orrin Henry, who typically signed himself as “O. Henry,” and Porter borrowed the name.
Another scholar, Guy Davenport, prefers to explain that “O. Henry” is a cryptic construction from the first two letters of Ohio and the second two and last two of penitentiary.
Adrian Room in A Dictionary of Pseudonyms points out that Porter was a pharmacy worker in prison and used a pharmacopoeia called U. S. Dispensatory, in which a French pharmacist named Étienne-Ossian Henry is mentioned. It is suggested that’s where the name came from.
Another tale is that an Austin family with whom Porter stayed had a cat named Henry the Proud and he was regularly called with the phrase “Henry, oh, Henry!” (This version begins to encroach on the candy bar of that name.)
If his own version can be believed, Porter gave this account to an interviewer from The New York Times:
It was during the New Orleans days that I adopted my pen name of O. Henry. I said to a friend: "I'm going to send out some stuff. I don't know if it amounts to much, so I want to get a literary alias. Help me pick out a good one." He suggested that we get a newspaper and pick a name from the first list of notables that we found in it. In the society columns we found the account of a fashionable ball. "Here we have our notables," said he. We looked down the list and my eye lighted on the name Henry, "That'll do for a last name," said I. "Now for a first name. I want something short. None of your three-syllable names for me." "Why don’t you use a plain initial letter, then?" asked my friend. "Good," said I, "O is about the easiest letter written, and O it is." A newspaper once wrote and asked me what the O stands for. I replied, "O stands for Olivier, the French for Oliver." And several of my stories accordingly appeared in that paper under the name Olivier Henry.
The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, it should be noted in the interest of full disclosure, is a pen name. In real life, he is The Slob of Sleazy Swamp.
Shakespeare took a walk in the Forest of Arden,
And encountered Voltaire, who said, “Beg your
But I happened to notice this very long weed,
And I’ll mention to you, as I counseled Candide,
You should spend some more time cultivating your
“Fie!” replied Shakespeare, “I’m onto your game,
You won’t find me gardening—if that is your aim.
All about nothing you’ve caused much ado,
For that is no weed that in my garden grew—
It’s only a rose by some other name.”