In his 1904 book Nostromo: A Tale of the Seaboard, Joseph Conrad wrote, “A nickname may be the best record of a success. That’s what I call putting the face of a joke upon the body of a truth.”
Conrad might be right. Plenty of successful writers have, or had, nicknames. As a kid, Voltaire went by “Zozo.” As an adult, Karl Marx preferred “Old Nick.” If William Golding was your scraggly English lit teacher, chances are you secretly called him “Scruff.” And if you count Margaret Atwood among your friends, you probably call her Peggy.
Here’s a list of literary nicknames—from childhood insults to friendly sobriquets—and how they came to be.
1. A fellow writer dubbed William Wordsworth "Turdsworth."
Lord Byron’s nickname for William Wordsworth may sound juvenile, but it was par for the course: Byron was weird. At Cambridge, he walked a pet bear on a leash and even tried to enroll the critter in class. The eccentric Byron wasn't the only one to poke fun at Wordsworth's expense. Samuel Taylor Coleridge once riffed on the Romantic-era writer's surname in a witty rhyme.
2. To her friends and family, Edith Wharton was “Miss Pussy Jones.”
Before becoming the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for literature, Edith Wharton was “better known as Miss Pussy Jones,” according to the New York Times. The nickname was widely used by her friends and family.
3. John Milton's Schoolmates christened him “The Lady of Christ’s.”
Centuries before Aerosmith wrote the immortal lyrics “Dude looks like a lady,” John Milton was turning heads at Christ’s College at Cambridge. His features were so delicate—with bountiful auburn hair and exceedingly fair skin—that students began calling the future author of Paradise Lost the “Lady of Christ’s” College.
4. Aldous Huxley was called “Ogie” for his awkwardness.
Aldous Huxley was a gangly kid. As a toddler, his head was so giant he had trouble staying upright while walking. And as a young adult, he was so thin that Virginia Woolf described him as a “gigantic grasshopper.” Somewhere in between, people started calling the blossoming wordsmith “Ogie”—short for ogre.
5. School Bullies Nicknamed James Baldwin “Popeyes.”
Kids can be cruel. James Baldwin’s toothy grin and large eyes inspired schoolyard bullies to call him “Froggy” and “Popeyes.” But a young Baldwin found solace in language. “Writing was my great consolation,” he’d say. “I could be as grotesque as a dwarf, and that wouldn’t matter.”
6. Ezra Pound gave T.S. Eliot the nickname “Old Possum.”
Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot were pen-pals and sometimes wrote letters in the style of Uncle Remus stories, mimicking the stereotype of an African-American dialect. Pound joked that Eliot was like the “Old Possum” in the Remus stories—reticent and cautious. The nickname spread, and Eliot used it in his children’s book Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, which inspired Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats.
7. Virginia Woolf's cheeky childhood antics earned her the nickname “The Goat.”
Virginia Woolf was a mischievous child. Quentin Bell wrote in his biography of Woolf that, “She could say things that made the grown-ups laugh with her.” On one occasion, she was secretly peeing in a bush and tried to divert attention by belting "The Last Rose of Summer." According to Bell, this—and similar misadventures—earned her the childhood nickname "The Goat," often shortened to just "Goat."
8. People called Chinua Achebe "Dictionary" because of his bookish ways.
The Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe was a boyhood bookworm who spent so much time with his nose buried in classics that his friends called him “Dictionary.” The laugh, however, was on them: Achebe’s book Things Fall Apart would be translated into at least 50 languages. By the twilight of his life, people were calling Achebe “Prof”—short for “professor”—instead.
9. Fyodor Dostoevsky's military classmates referred to him as “Monk Photius.”
Fyodor Dostoevsky’s father worked at the Mariinsky Hospital for the Poor, and the novelist spent much of his youth playing with the poor children whose parents were patients there. He never forgot his roots. When Dostoevsky came of age and joined the military, he became interested in Russian Orthodox religion, an obsession that prompted ridicule from fellow military students, who called him “Monk Photius,” after Photius I of Constantinople.
10. After he was wounded in battle, people nicknamed Miguel de Cervantes “The One-Handed from Lepanto.”
In 1571, Spain and other states of the Holy League waged war with the Ottoman Empire. Joining the fight was a young soldier named Miguel de Cervantes. At the Battle of Lepanto—one of the largest naval battles in history—a volley of musket shots tore into Cervantes’s chest and left hand, maiming him. From there on, people called the Don Quixote author El Manco de Lepanto, or “the one-handed from Lepanto.”
11. When Evelyn Waugh dated a woman with the same first name, friends started calling him “He-Evelyn.”
In 1927, author Evelyn Waugh met an aristocrat named Evelyn Gardner and later began courting her. The couple quickly realized life can get a little confusing when your romantic partner shares your first name. Friends began calling the couple “He-Evelyn and She-Evelyn” to tell them apart. The confusion was short-lived, as the duo dissolved their marriage less than a decade after they wed—after having already separated years earlier.
12. School boys dissed Honoré de Balzac by nicknaming him “The Poet.”
When the boys at school dubbed Honoré de Balzac “The Poet,” it wasn’t a compliment. The future author wrote the most ghastly, awful poetry in the whole class. “I neglected my studies to compose poems, which certainly can have shown no great promise, to judge by a line of too many feet which became famous among my companions,” Balzac wrote.
13. To one of her lovers, Simone de Beauvoir was simply “The Beaver.”
Early in life, one of Simone de Beauvoir’s boyfriends called her Castor, Latin for “Beaver.” (While the English word obviously resembles her surname, some believe the name came from Beavuoir’s work ethic: She was always as busy as a ... well ... beaver.) The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre loved the nickname. He dedicated his first work, Nausea, “to the Beaver” and would shamelessly refer to Beauvoir in interviews by the mammalian moniker.
14. People mocked William Faulkner by nicknaming him “Count No ‘Count.”
Late in World War I, William Faulkner served with the Royal Air Force in Canada—though the conflict ceased before he completed his training. When the war ended, he returned to the United States and ambled around town wearing his uniform and adopting British manners, regaling people with exaggerated tales of his military exploits. Locals laughed off this hifalutin poseur by calling him “Count No Account,” shortened to "Count No 'Count." The clipped nickname would follow Faulkner. In fact, in his freshman literary class, the roll listed him as “Falkner, Count William.” (The author later added the u to his surname).
15. Lewis Carroll embraced his nickname of “Dodo.”
Lewis Carroll’s real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. The writer had a stammer and sometimes stumbled while pronouncing his last name, saying “Do-do-dogson.” But he proudly welcomed his nickname. In Alice and Wonderland, the dodo bird who appears in the early chapters is a caricature of the author.
16. James Joyce was pleased to adopt the nickname “Herr Satan.”
James Joyce was a man of contradictions. He was staid, but delighted in the bawdry. He was pious as a young man, only to have the Vatican later label him as an “iconoclast.” So it’s no surprise that when a group of Swiss chorus girls playfully mocked the author’s pointy beard by calling him “Herr Satan,” Joyce proudly took the nickname.
17. “Plato” was given his nickname because of his broad physique.
Little known fact: The Ancient Greek philosopher Plato’s name was not actually “Plato.” His given name is believed to have been Aristocles. The famed figure supposedly shed his true name and opted for “Plato" after his wrestling coach commented on how impressed he was with Plato’s wide chest and shoulders—platon means "broad" in Greek.