This is a tale from the field.
One of the conditions of my ethnographic work on World of Warcraft is that I preserve the anonymity of my informants. I usually don’t use (or interact much) with the “real names” of my participants. I have a few as friends on Facebook and have even met a few in “real life”, but mostly, I never use the names of my participants in my work. I do, however, use avatar names — but to use these, even though they’re already sort of pseudonyms, I have to create pseudonyms for the pseudonyms.
Leaving aside the interesting layers of names and anonymity, picking pseudonyms is a really annoying job. Some participants have pseudonyms that they want to use (which is awesome, because then I don’t have to do anything). Sometimes I use a fantasy name generator that I’ve been using since the days when I wrote fiction for fun. Sometimes, my participants have names that reference a certain fandom or real person or even object names that I can anonymize by using related figures. And even fewer times, I try to be witty with my pseudonyms. This almost never works out the way I want it to.
Let’s talk about a person I’ll call J for right now. J is a participant in my ethnography, and one of those who has migrated from the realm of “participant” to “WoW friend” to “friend”. I love J in many ways, most of them related to his smart jokes and his amusing turns of phrase. J is also the unfortunate recipient of my most epic pseudonym failure yet.
J, an art student, once told me that he enjoys naming his characters after historical artists. When I was coming up with his pseudonym for the first time (for a class paper in 2009), I felt like his name was one of those that I could anonymize by using a related figure. J’s main character’s name was Greek, and (being a Greek nerd, as some of you may know), I have some knowledge of Ancient Greek people. I decided to name J’s character after a famed Greek rhetorician who wrote about style and oratory, Aelius Theon, who shares his name with Theon of Alexandria who wrote a humorous dictionary of Greek comedies, as well as a bunch of mathematicians named Theon. So I called J “Theon” as an homage to his turns of phrase which always amused me.
(Some of you may see where this is going.)
A year later, I began reading George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series (this is the series that is being made into HBO’s Game of Thrones series), and encountered Theon Greyjoy. I’m not going to spoil anything about Theon’s story from the book, except to say he is a rather unfortunate and unlikable character who makes some bad decisions. At first, it wasn’t so bad — I didn’t figure that most people would encounter ASoIaF, so Theon Greyjoy’s name wouldn’t be widely known. Then they made the TV show, and it became a hit, and Theon is portrayed in the show as even less likable than he is in the books (I wasn’t sure that was even possible). So I worry that Theon’s name would be associated with Theon Greyjoy rather than to nobody (or to Aelius Theon, who was probably lesser known than Theon Greyjoy even before GoT the show came out), and the concern about that is that the use of this name will color the ways that my readers understand J in my work.
So now, to avoid this trouble, I am going to find another pseudonym for J, one that doesn’t have such connotations. Maybe I’ll just stick with the name generator and avoid being clever from now on.