February 18, 2009

Dictionary Fun: Anonymity

The alignment of the stars juxtaposed against the limbo that occurs between the end of Football season and the start of Baseball season leads many otherwise sensible people to start tossing around the word "anonymity" as if they knew what they were talking about.

Basically, a bunch of people seem to think that bloggers who don't post under their actual name are posting anonymously, and thus are cowards or cretins (or worse) who should be ignored, if not actually run out of town on a rail.

Here's an example of what I'm talking about:
Carlos Miller // Feb 16, 2009 at 8:51 PM

I believe a blogger who uses their real name has more credibility than those who blog anonymously because they stand more to lose by what they write.
The problem with this line of reasoning is that if you are writing a blog, you are not, by definition, anonymous. In fact, you can't be.

As always, we should start with that book that too few of us ever bother to open (because we arrogantly think we have already mastered our own language just because we grew up with it); The Dictionary.

Late Latin anonymus, from Greek anōnymos, from a- + onyma name — more at name

1: not named or identified 2: of unknown origin 3: lacking individuality, distinction, or recognizability
If you author a blog, you may not be named, but you are identifiable: you are the person writing the blog. Eye on Miami, for example, is written by two distinct individuals. We do not know their names - we don't even know their gender! - but we know that every article was written either by Gimleteye or Genius Of Despair, and we even know which party wrote which article. The articles do not appear out of thin air; they were authored, and those authors are distinctive and recognizable.

It's our sloppy approach to language that causes us to miss this subtle distinction, but it's important, and it makes all the difference. If any piece of writing, or series of writings, can be attributed to a common individual, and a source of origin can be determined, its author is not anonymous.

So while many bloggers do not post under their given name (the one that appears on their identification), they do post under a name. And there is a word for that, and it's not "anonymous."

Greek pseudōnymos
circa 1706

: bearing or using a fictitious name

And when you write pseudonymously, you write under a nom de plume, which translates to "pen name." Wikipedia does a fine job summing it up:
A pen name, nom de plume, or literary double, is a pseudonym adopted by an author. A pen name may be used to make the author's name more distinctive, to disguise his or her gender, to distance an author from some or all of his works, to protect the author from retribution for his writings, or for any of a number of reasons related to the marketing of the work. The author's name may be known only to the publisher, or may come to be common knowledge.
So using a pseudonym is in fact an old and respected tradition. Hardly lacking in integrity, someone posting pseudonymously is as worthy of respect as anyone.


Benjamin Franklin, one of our founding fathers, was a respected scientist, journalist and publisher. He was widely know and respected for his writings. And yet, his first articles were published under another name:
Benjamin was very interested in his brother's newspaper and desperately wanted to help him write it. Unfortunately, he knew that James would not allow a fifteen year old boy to write articles. Benjamin thought of a plan. He would write under an anonymous pen-name and slip the articles under the door at night. He chose the name Silence Dogood. Articles written by Silence Dogood became very popular. People throughout Boston wanted to know who she was. She spoke out about issues abroad and the poor treatment of women.
- MrNussbaum.com
Years later, he again wrote under an assumed name; 'Richard Saunders,' a persona created by Franklin to be the author of Poor Richard's Almanac.


Up until very recently, female writers did not get the same respect as men; while we now praise the Brontë sisters, they published as brothers under the names Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. Out of Africa was written by Karen Blixen, but couldn't get a publisher interested until she attached the name Isak Dinesen to it.

And even in the last few years we find women hiding their gender: S. E. Hinton, D. C. Fontana, and even J. K. Rowling!

In a reverse twist, Charles Leslie McFarlane wrote the the earliest Nancy Drew mysteries, and even several of the Bobbsey Twins stories! Yet those books are still accredited to Carolyn Keene and Laura Lee Hope, respectively.


Some authors choose to disguise collaborative efforts. Ellery Queen (Frederic Dannay & Manfred B. Lee) is an example of that, as is Robert Randall (Robert Silverberg and Randall Garrett).


Many authors use different names when they write for different genres:
  • Nora Roberts writes romance novels, but wrote thrillers under JD Robb
  • Samuel Clemens is best know for his stories as Mark Twain, but he also authored under Sieur Louis de Conte.
  • Rev. Charles Dogsdon was a noted mathmetician, but is known to us as Lewis Carroll.

Some authors feel their names don't suit the material they produce: would you read a rugged western by Pearl Gray? Pearl didn't think so, and so we know him as Zane Grey.


If you are going to pound your chest in righteous indignation, you really ought to do the least amount of research to make sure that what you think you're saying is the same as what you actually are saying. A large number of theoretically literate people have been parading their ignorance as fact. Shame on them!

As we can clearly see, if you stake out a corner of the internet, create an identity for yourself, and post your beliefs, musings and rants and raves, you do so not 'anonymously,' but 'pseudonymously.' And writing under a pseudonym is an old and respectable tradition, practiced by some of the greatest journalists in history.

Are there examples of true anonymity in the blogosphere? Of course there are; all those twits and half-wits who leave unsigned comments appended to various blogs. Coconut Grove Grapevine has a bumper crop of those; mindless drivel, for the most part, contradictory missives all indistinctly appended "anonymous," making any sort of meaningful discussion impossible. The auhors are unknown, and un-knowable. We can't identify one "anonymous" from any other.

But - and this is the thing - they are not bloggers. Bloggers write blogs; readers merely read the blogs, and they are the ones that leave comments. You are not a blogger if all you do is leave comments on somene's blog. If you read a novel and write a comment in the margin, no one starts calling you a "novelist," do they?

1 comment:

  1. How dare you hide behind anoni...um...anonymitty, or whatever! who are you really?! We deserve too no!!

    Marius...um, I mean anoneemouse.