Visit theallusionist.org/alter-ego to listen to this episode and read more about it.
This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, am a PI hired by a mysterious client to investigate language. After weeks of staking out language’s home, sifting through language’s bins, putting on funny voices to call language’s business associates and family members, and taking grainy long-lens photos of language at the supermarket and driving range and car park of a seedy motel, I compile a dossier and shove it into a manila envelope stamped TOP SECRET, so I can’t tell you what’s in it, unless you hire me to investigate what’s in the envelope.
Today’s show is in three parts, about alter egos, when your name, the words by which the world refers to you, is replaced by another for certain purposes.
There is one swear in this episode, which you may notice like a single pea under your stack of mattresses.
This is the 98th episode of the Allusionist, which means we’re only two away from the 100th! And to gently celebrate this base 10 landmark, I have a request: record yourself saying the best thing you’ve learned about language from the Allusionist. If your answer is “nothing”, that’s OK, maybe sit this one out though, but if you can think of a thing, fire up voice memo on your phone or suchlike and record yourself for a few seconds and then email the recording to email@example.com.
On with the show!
PART 1: Doe, a deer, a female deer, and also an unidentified corpse
Doe, John Doe, who is John Doe?
An unidentified dead man.
Or in a legal case, a name that’s fake,
The female equivalent is Jane!
John, a very common name,
That is followed up by Doe
You’ll find it in a court case
When the plaintiff’s incognito-o-o-o
It’s on brand for John Doe that nobody’s sure who he was or why his name came to be used for a man, alive or dead, identity unknown or concealed in a legal matter. Today, it’s mostly just the USA that recasts people as John Doe and his female counterpart Jane Doe, but the practice originated in English law, a few hundred years ago, at least as far back as the 1600s. And every time I bring up historical English law on the show, I have to remind you that yes, it’s a bonkers system, just strap in and ride along with me, you’ll enjoy watching Twin Peaks a lot more once you accept that it’s not all going to make narrative sense.
So to the now obsolete legal process known as an action of ejectment, which was: If you were a landowner in England and there were squatters on your property, or your tenants hadn’t been paying up, or someone had unjustly kicked you off the land you owned, the law didn’t offer you much help at all to get them to pay or leave or let you back in. The process was expensive, and likely to fail. But the law might be more helpful to your fictitious tenant John Doe, if you brought an action of ejectment on his behalf against the person who ejected him from the property, the also fictitious Richard Roe.
Doe, a deer, a female deer;
Roe, another kind of deer.
So to recap: a fictional plaintiff versus a fictional defendant.
The lawsuit would state that you, real you, had leased your property to John Doe, fake tenant, and then fake Richard Roe had ejected John Doe from the property or otherwise screwed him over. The court would see that John Doe had a real lease from you, the landowner, which isn’t too hard for you to supply to John Doe, since he’s your imaginary friend. And Richard Roe would have to appear in court to contest this, except as he’s a fake person, the real defendant would have to show up instead, or not show up and automatically be ruled against, and if he did turn up, he’d have to provide a bunch of not-fake evidence to show that the land was his, or admit to the court that the lease and John Doe and Richard Roe were fake, the case would usually go the way of the real landowner.
And by the way, this system developed as a substitute for a system that was deemed too complicated. CAN YOU IMAGINE.
Another option for invoking John Doe was before anyone even tried to take your property, you could preempt all this by launching a lawsuit against a fake John Doe who’d trespassed or squatted on your land and thus prove your ownership.
If there were more than two fake people involved in a Doe vs Roe case, they’d often be called John Stiles and Richard Miles, John Nokes, or sometimes John Goodright, Henry Wouldbegood, Lawrence Lovelittle, Thomas Notitle. Really going for plausibility there. The practice of fake defendants and plaintiffs goes back to Ancient Roman law, where Numerius Negidius might face a lawsuit from Aulus Agerius, both kind of joke names, Agerius referring to the verb to set in motion, and Numerius Negidius roughly translating to ‘I refuse to pay’. Latin still appears in cases now, where an anonymised person might be referred to by the initials N.N., ‘Nomen Nescio’, meaning ‘I do not know the name’.
The fake courtroom enemies John Doe and Richard Roe were abolished in British law in 1852, although John Doe popped back up in 2005, when JK Rowling served an unusual John Doe injunction against anyone, known or unknown, who sold, obtained or disclosed part or all of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince prior to the book’s official publication. So in that case, the John Does weren’t fictional offenders so much as potential ones.
And John Doe continues to have a media profile, as the unidentified body on a slab in a TV forensics drama, or the murderer in Se7en. In American legal cases, he and his female counterpart Jane Doe are cover names for people who are unknown or unidentified or deliberately anonymised. James Doe, Judy Doe, Junior Doe. Mary Moe. Mary Major might appear in federal cases in the US. Perhaps the most famous example of the legal placeholder names, Roe v. Wade, Jane Roe vs Henry Wade, ruled on the same day in 1973 as another pseudonymous abortion case, Mary Doe v. Arthur K. Bolton. A 1988 deposition in the US named Brett Boe; Carla Coe; Donna Doe; Frank Foe; Grace Goe; Harry Hoe; Marta Moe; Norma Noe; Paula Poe; Ralph Roe; Sammy Soe; Tommy Toe; Vince Voe; William Woe and Xerxes Xoe.
John Doe left a legacy. Even though we can’t say who he is, or why he’s named after a female deer. To be honest, him being named after a deer is the least incomprehensible thing about this.
That will bring us back to legally anonymised John Doe.
PART 2 - My wheel self
KATIE HELLVETICA BLACK: I remember when I first started, it was a coming-of-age funnest thing trying to think of your name, trying to think of something that, for me, related to my job; some people it's a book they love, an author or something like that, a place they're from, a link to their heritage or something...
HZ: Sometimes just a really good joke.
KATIE HELLVETICA BLACK: Yeah, exactly. Some people just make up a pun and go with it.
BRAT: A lot of people love punning in roller derby, that seems to be quite the trend. People spend a lot of time thinking up a name and trying to get exactly the right kind of word play with exactly the right connotations that isn't going to kind of reflect negatively on them but it’s also clever.
HZ: And roller derby names are rare examples of puns I can get on board with. Here at this London vs Oxford bout, I can see Sirius Whack, Aphrodite for Destruction, Jemolition and Claire Force One whizzing around the track. But there are punfree names as well, some real surnames, some words laced with a little threat like Damage and Punching Ovaries.
BRAT: My name currently actually is just Brat, but originally it was Brat Worst, and this is like really silly - it has no real intelligent origins. But when I first started playing roller derby, I'd just been living in Austria, where the bratwurst is a very common snack! So I felt like a kind of affiliation with Germanic culture. And then my parents which is to call me a brat when I was a kid because I was a little nightmare. And so I just felt like it was kind of silly, because it sounded a bit punk. But over the years I dropped the Worst because it actually has negative connotations, but also I just feel like Brat is sufficient.
HZ: And it's efficient: one syllable, four letters.
BRAT: Yeah, it's easy to shout - Brat! Brat! Brat!
HZ: Easy to put on garments.
BRAT: Very, very, yeah. As you can see, I put it on a garment.
HZ: If it was 16 letters it wouldn't fit.
URSA MAIM-HER: My derby name is Ursa Maim-Her. It's obviously a pun on the constellation Ursa Major. I've always been kind of a space nerd. But also Ursa means 'bear' and Latin and it's pretty badass to be called Bear while I'm on the derby track. Being trans, I have some baggage with names in general. So I've probably given a bit more thought to the idea of names than a lot of people might. And my derby name was almost as big a deal to me as my real name, which is Callie, by the way. I have a mega case of imposter syndrome and I'm always thinking and wondering and worrying if I really belong in certain places, especially among these incredible athletes that I play roller derby with. And I should also add that I think it's silly to think that way but it's how my brain works. I think anyone who's willing to show up and do work belongs there - everyone except me, of course, because we're always less kind to ourselves than others, right? So when I'm on the track and I hear someone call me Ursa, it's a really really big deal.
BASHER FIERCE: I skated for about six months as Foxy Brown actually, but I didn't feel connected to that name. And so then we spent probably six months actually thinking of something that was a bit more connected to me, rather than just a name I liked. I am obsessed with Beyonce and so I was trying to think of something that brought her in; and obviously her name is Sasha Fierce, her stage name. And then we ended up with Basher Fierce. I feel like it suits the game as well, although people would shorten it to ‘Bash’ the whole time, so for the most part people don't know where it came from. But that's the original origin.
BRAT: A lot of people are just dropping roller derby names altogether. There's a bit of a kind of shift in there in the culture, where some people really feel strongly identify with having a roller derby name, and some people are like, “Actually, you know what, I want to take myself more seriously as an athlete and maybe I'll just skate under my real name.” But I don't think that'll ever be me.
HZ: So it's kind of a validation thing that people don't want the names?
BRAT: I think no, not necessarily; but I think some people, as roller derby has become increasingly popular - for example our A team play in international tournaments, it has been on the BBC, like the World Cup this last year - and I think actually people started to feel like “maybe I want to have to have myself recognised for like who I am really rather than like a persona.” Although there are people who really feel like becoming a persona is part of how they perform. So I think it really varies.
HZ: Right, so it's just whether it's easy to access your inner roller derbist without it.
BRAT: Yeah, exactly.
KATIE HELLVETICA BLACK: My roller derby name was, when I first started, Hellvetica Black. As someone who works with graphic design and typefaces, it was a perfect spooky pun on a related kind of theme for me. However, I changed it back to my given name. There was a bit of a move away from roller derby names, especially in LRG, a lot of us dropped them.
HZ: Why was that?
KATIE HELLVETICA BLACK: I think there was just a feeling that it wasn't reflective of where we were going as athletes - we were starting to call ourselves athletes, working out a lot, wearing proper sports gear; we weren't wearing fishnets and mad makeup and safety pins anymore. So a lot of us moved that way. But I really dislike my surname, so I kept the Black bit from Hellvetica Black and I moved the Hellvetica to a middle name. So now I skate under the snappy Katie Hellvetica Black.
HZ: Do you feel, though, that you could prove that you can be an athlete and wear fishnets and wild makeup?
KATIE HELLVETICA BLACK: Yeah, yeah, definitely. And some people kept their roller derby names the whole time; and some people never had them. Some people never wore fishnets and frilly skirts, and some people love it and wear whatever they want, and that's the beauty of roller derby, really. There's space for everyone; there's space for whatever you want to wear or look like or call yourself.
KATE RUSSELL: I actually skate under my normal name, which is Kate Russell. And the reason for that is because I hate my roller derby name.
HZ: What happened there?
KATE RUSSELL: When I first started playing, everybody was so excited to come up with their names, and it was this real thing. And I think I just panicked and I forgot anything about my personality or anything that I liked, and I just thought, "Right, I used to like the Beatles when I was younger... Strawberry Wheels, I guess?" Which is A. not a good pun and B. it doesn't mean anything and it's not very funny.
HZ: It's quite a sweet pun, but it could refer to a shopping trolley, I guess.
KATE RUSSELL: Oh yeah. Literally anything, maybe a car even. So I really quickly shortened it to Strawbs, which I do get called, but then that means I have to explain my terrible derby name a lot of the time. So my shirt says ‘Russell’.
HZ: Were you not tempted to be like, "OK, I don't like Strawbs, I'll think up another one"?
KATE RUSSELL: Well, yeah. I actually still long to be called Crap Bag.
HZ: Is that because you have low self-esteem, or is it a Friends reference?
KATE RUSSELL: I think it's a Friends reference! And I just think it's really funny.
BASHER FIERCE: It's not mandatory to have a name. I felt like I wanted one. But, if you don't, that's okay too.
HZ: Is it nice having this sort of alternative self that you can step into?
BASHER FIERCE: Yeah. That's why I do it, because I work in the corporate world and so I spend a lot of time fitting into a very specific box, and this feels like a good opportunity not to be in that box and to do what I like within the rules of the game.
HZ: Smash the box.
BASHER FIERCE: Yeah, exactly.
BRAT: I would say there's probably about 20 percent real names and then about 80 percent derby names at this point.
HZ: Is there a problem if more than one person has the same derby name?
BRAT: Yeah, you don't do that, that's not the done thing. Back when I stopped playing roller derby there was this website called Two Evils, and this was a database of every roller player in the world. In order to register officially as a roller derby player, you had to go on Two Evils, check that no one had the name. So quite often you think you've had like the best name and then you go and check someone in Alabama has that name, so, noooo!
HZ: There's so much pressure to come up with a really good joke.
KATE RUSSELL: Yes exactly, and it's with you forever, it's on your shirt and it sticks and if it's bad then...
HZ: People do change them, don't they?
KATE RUSSELL: Yeah, people do change them sometimes. And this is really mundane, but if you change them you have to buy new shirts, and that gets expensive.
KATIE HELLVETICA BLACK: Some of them have got really rude swear words in them and they have to be censored, because it's a family event.
HUMPME: My name is HumpMe. It's a whole story, because I'm not native English. I'm from Belgium. And when I chose my name, I thought 'hump me' meant 'jump over me', because I'm small, I'm a little skater, so I chose my name HumpMe. And then when I moved to London two years ago, people were like, "Why do you have such a sexual name?"
HZ: It is suggestive.
HUMPME: Yeah. And I was like, "What do you mean?" I really didn't know and then, yeah, they told me it's a sexual name, and it was like, oh my God! So it's a bit embarrassing now, because we were talking about it in a conversation, I was saying, "Yeah I don't really like sexual derby names, some people really have a very suggestive or very explicit name," and I was just saying, "I don't like it" and they were like, "Yeah but what about your name?" I'm like, "Huh?" Because I thought it was literally like ‘jump over me’. But it's not. Now, sometimes, I think about changing it, but I'm already skating with it for seven years now. So yeah, people know me by my name.
KATIE HELLVETICA BLACK: I'm going to swear. I'm sure there was someone called Pony Fucker.
HZ: There's not really a joke there.
KATIE HELLVETICA BLACK: No. And people who worked a swear into their names probably have moved away from them.
HZ: That seems like the classy move. Or just you think: How many opportunities do you have to come up with an alternative identity?
KATIE HELLVETICA BLACK: Exactly. I think it's a really unique and special part of the sport. A lot of people come to roller derby and they're like, “My lifestyle changed” or “I moved to a new city”; for some reason they find roller derby. And for a lot of us it’s the first time that we're immersed in this group of strong independent women who are running the thing for themselves, doing this amazing, really cool and fun contact sport, being good at it. And it's a chance to be like, "Oh, actually, I'm going to make up this alter ego" - if you want - or just make a name and have a silly pun if you want, or just own your given name and just write that on the back of your shirt if you want.
PART 3: Cover Story
CAROLINE CRAMPTON: A lot of crime writers of the 1930s and 40s used pseudonyms, partly because writing detective fiction was seen as something not particularly desirable for an author to be doing.
HZ: Caroline Crampton makes the podcast Shedunnit, unravelling the mysteries of classic detective stories. The 1930s and 40s were something of a golden era of crime fiction.
CAROLINE CRAMPTON: It was a popular genre, but it didn't have the greatest literary reputation perhaps, so they might separate off their detective fiction enterprise with a different name for that reason. It was quite a judgmental time in publishing, and therefore people were separating out their literary output and their detective output because detective output, whilst being wildly popular, was seen as lesser or not as prestigious and so on.
HZ: But they still wrote the crime fiction.
CAROLINE CRAMPTON: Oh yeah, absolutely.
HZ: Why? If it was all a bit shameful.
CAROLINE CRAMPTON: Because it made money! It made loads of money. The best example of this I found is Cecil Day-Lewis, father of Daniel Day-Lewis. Cecil Day-Lewis was a very serious poet and he was Britain's Poet Laureate. But he also wrote over 20 detective novels under the name Nicholas Blake, which he explicitly started doing because poetry was not bringing in enough money.
HZ: Wow, how things have changed! Did no one know at the time that Cecil Day Lewis was also Nicholas Blake?
CAROLINE CRAMPTON: His publishers definitely knew that he was Nicholas Blake, and he was also part of the Detection Club, this little literary society that Agatha Christie and people like that were in. So people did literally know it was him, but they didn't put it on the books, "Nicholas Blake (Cecil Day Lewis)". So it was definitely a kind of an anonymous side hustle, you might call it in today's parlance. But they are good. They are interesting. He had a clever central detective figure that recurred across lots of the books, and they had interesting settings and plots, and I think even though maybe it was something that he really just started as a money-making enterprise, he did really like detective fiction and he really got into it and he did put effort in. I don't think he considered it lesser work in that sense; it was just how it was perceived externally.
One of the reasons why it was seen as a bit lesser or embarrassing for a high blown literary author to write detective fiction was just because it was so incredibly popular. And there's still, I think, that same lingering prejudice against writers who work in genres, whether it's scifi or crime or fantasy or romance, that just because something shifts a lot of units, it sells a lot of books, it must therefore be lowbrow. So there's definitely a lot of that operating at the time when crime writers were picking pseudonyms in the 1920s, 30s and 40s, that “I need one name for the stuff that a lot of people are going to read and then I need a separate name for the stuff that only a few but very important people are going to read.” And it’s just this bizarre expression of genre prejudice, I think, in lots of ways - and even more so because, in the case of Cecil Day Lewis and Nicholas Blake, Nicholas Blake was funding Cecil Day Lewis; it wasn't the other way around. But for some reason, the less profitable but more prestigious thing could be his own name, and the thing that paid his bills had to be a different name.
HZ: I always find it a bit unnecessary when people are like, "Who is Elena Ferrante? Who is the real person behind Elena Ferrante?" Because I always think, "It's just a person, what difference does that make?" But I can understand now, when you've got a highfalutin writer behind these novels, why people think it's an exciting thing to uncover who is behind the pseudonym.
CAROLINE CRAMPTON: Exactly. I think that's something that pseudonyms have always had, is this element of mystery compounded when it's actually a mystery or crime novel that they're writing. But yeah, there is that feeling of, "Well there HAVE been occasions when it was someone I'd already heard of, so maybe it is this time." Elena Ferrante is a really good example. J.K. Rowling as Robert Galbraith. Going back in the day, someone like Cecil Day Lewis writing as Nicholas Blake. Agatha Christie writing as Mary Westmacott. So there are all these examples when it was somebody quite famous. It's a big scoop to out some pseudonymous author if it turns out to be somebody famous. And that's why you get these constant investigations and probes into who is Elena Ferrante really?
HZ: But then Agatha Christie was her real name, so she was writing the crime fiction under her real name. It wasn't like oh the shame of it, I'm going to hide behind the image of Agatha Christie.
CAROLINE CRAMPTON: Agatha Christie is a really interesting example in that, because yes, Agatha Christie was her real name - or rather it was her married name, it was her name from her first husband. And when her husband left her and they got divorced, she actually wanted to start using a pseudonym at that point, because she didn't really want to carry on writing with her ex-husband-who-had-cheated-on-her's name on all her books. But her publisher was like, "No, Agatha Christie is the brand now, we can't change that." So even though she subsequently got married to somebody else, she wasn't ever allowed to publish under a different name.
And I think that's why she did invent this completely alternative pseudonym for herself of Mary Westmacott, where she published - and people call them romance novels, I think they're really just slightly psychological, almost kitchen sink plots that don't have any murder or thriller element to them. She did that under this completely separate name, and I think perhaps that was slightly fulfilling her desire to just not be Agatha Christie for a bit. And also that classic thing a lot of very popular authors have of wanting to find out whether people read them because they are popular or whether what they do is actually any good.
HZ: That is so galling. A little note to anybody who is choosing a pen name, just make sure it's not anything associated with a relationship.
CAROLINE CRAMPTON: Yeah. So at the time when her first novel was published, Agatha Christie was just her name; she was perfectly happily married and obviously thought she was going to be for the rest of her life. But, circumstances change, bad things happen... So she was shackled to the name of her ex-husband - who also after their divorce got remarried to someone else as well, so there was another Mrs. Christie out there. So it can't have been great for them either to see that this now world-famous bestselling author were still using this name.
HZ: Agatha Christie also married someone else, so I imagine for them seeing her ex-husband's name on the cover of all of her books would have been an irritant.
CAROLINE CRAMPTON: Yeah, she married an archaeologist called Max Mallowan, and that's actually coincidentally where some of her books that touch on archeology come from: she used to accompany him to digs in the Middle East. They'd spend six months of the year in Syria or whatever, and she would write another when she's there. So that's how she came to write things like Murder in Mesopotamia and stuff, because she had actually been to Mesopotamia. But interestingly she published an autobiography about their their travels to the Middle East that's called Come, Tell Me How You Live, which apparently she wrote because so many people just kept asking her what's it like to do archaeology in the Middle East that she was like, “I’ll just write a book and then I can tell people to buy the book and they can stop asking me about it.” But in that autobiography she is credited as Agatha Christie Mallowan, and so she did try and hint at the fact that "Yes, I'm Agatha Christie, but also that's not really my name."
HZ: There’s more about crime authors’ pseudonyms in Shedunnit episode 14, ‘Pseudonyms’, focusing on Helen Fields aka H.S. Chandler, and Josephine Tey aka Gordon Daviot - neither of those were the author’s real name. You can find Shedunnit at the podhearing places and shedunnitshow.com, where you can also join the book club Caroline has just started for the show, so if you enjoy detective fiction, get amongst it.
Before that, you heard from the London Roller Girls: Brat, Helvetica Black, Basher Fierce, Kate Russell and HumpMe. Visit londonrollergirls.com to find out more about them and their upcoming fixtures. You also heard from Ursa Maimher, aka Callie Wright of the podcast Queersplaining, find it at queersplaining.com.
The Allusionist is a proud member of Radiotopia from PRX, a collective of independent and excellent podcasts. Find them all at radiotopia.fm.
Your randomly selected word from the dictionary today is…
embouchure, noun: 1. Music: the way in which a player applies the mouth and tongue in playing a brass or wind instrument. 2. Archaic: the mouth of a river.
Try using it in an email today.
This episode was produced by me, Helen Zaltzman, with help from Matilda Zaltzman. Big thanks to Christina Dixon, Eleanor McDowall and Caroline Crampton. The music is by Martin Austwick. He and I perform a live show based on the Allusionist, find out when and where at theallusionist.org/events.
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