Mark Twain's case is straight-forward: it's a pseudonym, pronounced as if it were one word.

So is Stendhal, for that matter.

However, here's a list of folks who can be referred to by their surnames only, no problem:


Bush (even though there are three)
Van Gogh
Whistler (the guy who painted his Mom)

On the other hand, if you say, "I read this story by Poe," someone is very likely to make absolutely sure by asking, "Edgar Allan Poe?" - as if there were other famous authors by that name.

The same goes for:

William Faulkner
Frans Hals
John Singer Sargent (any other famous painters by that name? And yet, go figure, there's always someone inclining his or her head politely and going, "John Singer Sargent?" No, Groucho Sargent.
Kurt Vonnegut
Benedict Jumping Cumberbatch
Che Guevara
Susan Sarandon

Now why is that?

  • 2
    It is an interesting question in its own right, and could stimulate some interesting discussion, but I see no way this can be answered objectively. Nov 30, 2015 at 6:10
  • 12
    I think Faulkner belongs in the Einstein list. And maybe Vonnegut. Nov 30, 2015 at 6:16
  • 3
    clinton? thats two people
    – Keltari
    Dec 1, 2015 at 0:00
  • 1
    @Keltari: I'm trying to pretend that the one who wears skirts but would look more plausible in trousers doesn't exist. She's been insanely annoying all these years.
    – Ricky
    Dec 1, 2015 at 0:26
  • 1
    ... "Benedict Jumping Cumberbatch"? Dec 1, 2015 at 7:36

6 Answers 6


There are a few flawed premises and irrelevancies in this question. Twain being a pseudonym is irrelevant. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Twain being a surname is irrelevant. Remember Cher or Oprah? Those are first names. Even Twain being a celebrity is irrelevant. Well almost.

What is important is the ability to say a name and have people know who you mean. That ability to uniquely identify them from only one name depends on context.

If I say Poe, most people think Edgar Allan Poe without any need to make sure. Unless I'm in a context where that's ambiguous. Say I have a dog named Poe. If I say, "Oh Poe is the best" in that context you can't be sure what I mean.

You are focusing on a particular context, celebrity. I know of no celebrity with the name Poe other than Edgar Allan Poe. Though I don't particularly read tabloids so I may be missing someone. What makes sense to me might not make sense to others. @RoaringFish does have a point here about this being subjective.

However, there is one very objective factor when it comes to the names of celebrities: The Screen Actors Guild. They ensure that an actors name, in the context of acting, is unique. It's one of the reasons so many actors have stage names that are different than the ones their parents gave them. It's also why there is a J in Michael J. Fox.

Ofcourse, not every celebrity is in the Guild. Not every screen actor is a celebrity. It's not a perfect system. Someone with the name Einstein might someday become a famous politician and the Guild wouldn't be able to do a thing about it. Soon people would be asking questions like, "Einstein? You mean the physicist or the politician?" It's called disambiguation. It's needed when there is more than one obvious meaning. It's why we have surnames in the first place. Famous or not.

In the end there is no perfect objective assurance of uniqueness. Any author or speaker must first make an attempt to uniquely identify the subject of discussion. Afterwords they can shorten it like I have when mentioning "the guild". I've created a context where what that means is obvious by first introducing the guild.

Sometimes there is no good way to uniquely identify someone. We have people who've done nothing wrong who can't use air travel because someone else with their name is on the no-fly list.

Celebrity itself can be thought of as the state of having been introduced to the public. It's not binary though, some remain little known their whole career. Even stars become obscure as the public's memory fades. In politics they actually measure this in polls. It's called name recognition.

So, when can a celebrity be referred to by their surname only? When doing so makes your audience think of only one person.

  • I appreciate your effort to come up with an objective answer, but as Tolkien, Shakespeare, Van Gogh, Homer, Einstein were not screen actors is still looks very subjective to me. Nov 30, 2015 at 14:58
  • @RoaringFish how's this? Nov 30, 2015 at 16:00
  • Wow, thanks for the "Nice Answer" badge. :-) Nov 30, 2015 at 18:20
  • 1
    +1, but in my experience "Poe" with no a first name most often refers to Nathan Poe. ;-)
    – ruakh
    Dec 1, 2015 at 2:35
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    @Owen And nowadays if you refer to someone as just Pitt, you’re much more likely to be referring to Brad than any of the ones you mentioned. Dec 1, 2015 at 11:02

This is actually really simple. You can refer to someone by their last name whenever two conditions are satisfied:

  1. There is no danger of confusion in the minds of your hearers
  2. Using just the last name conveys the amount of respect and formality that you intend.

The first of these is most important, and it is context dependent. For example an article about different American presidents can refer to "Kennedy" without any fear of confusion, even though there are plenty of other people called Kennedy in the world. If you are talking about physical thermodynamics you can refer to Boyle without worrying that you will be confused with someone else called Boyle.

For the second, it's generally considered less respectful to use only a surname.

  • 1
    Everyone laughed when Susan Boyle entered the laboratory. Well, she'd been laughed at before.
    – choster
    Dec 4, 2015 at 16:36

It could well just be what popular culture names things. "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet...". "'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.'" Our shared culture labels things with names, and some of those things happen to be people. There is a conventional form of this name, that on one's birth registration, but that's hardly the only form.

In the UK in the last few years, it has become common for celebrities to be described only by their first name. Most people in the UK would know who you meant by Delia, Jamie, Hugh, and I don't think Nigella has a surname any more! Some are last-name-only, like Corbyn. Some are both, like David Attenborough.

I think it's just culture and convention, something that catches on. If there is a possibility of confusion, more words are used for disambiguation. Calling David Attenborough either "David" or "Attenborough" would be confusing. But calling Dawkins "Dawkins" is not.

  • That last one is upsetting. Is he being deified? Darwin the all-giver and Sir Richard his prophet? Wow.
    – Ricky
    Nov 30, 2015 at 9:30
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    Whether Attenborough is ambiguous depends on the context. If you are talking about nature documentaries, you can just say Attenborough, and we know you mean David. If you are talking about film directors, you can just say Attenborough, and we will know you mean Richard. Context is all.
    – Ben
    Nov 30, 2015 at 10:21
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    @Ricky, Dawkins is not being deified, any more than Churchill or Hitler, Stalin or Roosevelt, Montgomery or Rommel, Eisenhower or Mao, Nasser or Eden, Arafat or Netanyahu.
    – Ben
    Nov 30, 2015 at 10:27
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    If someone said Attenborough, most people I know (UK) would assume David. The expectation would be that if you meant his brother you'd say Richard Attenborough. Like if you meant a different Madonna or Jesus, you'd explicitly say "Jesus Javier" or "Madonna Smith". The point is that the "one name only" is assumed to be the most famous person, and anyone else requires clarification.
    – Jon Story
    Nov 30, 2015 at 10:50
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    @Ricky what are you referring to with 'that last one', I see nothing about Darwin in this answer at all.
    – Jase
    Nov 30, 2015 at 13:29

In the company of most folks, if you reference "Bach", they will assume you're speaking of Johann Sebastian Bach. If, though, you are in the company of folks more educated about Classical Music, they may ask you to verify that, as two of his sons were also rather accomplished composers. Personally, I have a preference for playing the compositions of C. P. E. Bach.

It's mostly a matter of how familiar your audience is with other folks of the same name. Your best bet is to try to understand the scope of your audience's knowledge. But don't be overly concerned. If you miss the mark, they will likely ask you to specify exactly who you mean.

  • 3
    Or, of course, P. D. Q. Bach.
    – B Pete
    Nov 30, 2015 at 21:31
  • @BPete I had a chance to see Peter Schickele when he came to town some years ago. Quite an entertaining event...
    – tjd
    Nov 30, 2015 at 21:41

The formula is as follows:

Fame of celebrity among your intended audience * unusualness of name > required level of unambiguity

The importance of unusualness of name can be seen for example in the case of Pablo Ruiz Picasso. Both his name (Pablo) and his first (paternal) surname (Ruiz) are extremely common, hence he is known by his maternal surname.

There is also a tendency to use first names for female celebrities and surnames for male celebrities (sexist though it may be, this seems to be the default usage by commentators on tennis tournaments in the UK.) This rule is often overruled by the previous one (for example Kardashian when referring to Kim, with other members of her family referred to by their first names.)

Finally, there is the question of what to do with celebrities with very common names. Here an abbreviation is often used: J-Lo or K-Fed (Actually Federline is not particularly common, it just seems that at 3 syllables it is longer than the attention span of the average tabloid journalist / reader.)

  • I think you may be onto something so far as the formula goes. Some of the examples are faulty, though. Elvis was the fellow's Christian name, and he was a man. I don't remember hearing anyone referring to Azarenka as simply "Victoria." I'm one of the very few people in the world who have a very vague idea of who the Kardashians are. I know who J-Lo is (I may have even met her socially, I can't remember), but I had never heard of K-Fed until you mentioned him just now (please forgive me: I'm a Wagnerite, though, perhaps, not quite a perfect one).
    – Ricky
    Dec 1, 2015 at 9:21

I think for everyone over a certain age, and with an IQ bigger than their hat size, "Che" is sufficient, as is "Cher", "Madonna", "Elvis", "Hillary", and probably dozens of others if we really thought about it.

But to answer your specific question, some people are known by their full name (Mark Twain, Edgar Allen Poe, Susan B Anthony, Martin Luther King Jr), and many others are well known by their surname only (or nickname or first name). Arnold Parlmer was universally known as "Arnie", but Arnold Schwarzenegger did not achieve the same "Arnie" status. It's the way it is.

And a lot of this stuff depends on how old you are, what your interests are, and what country you live in.

  • 3
    @HagenvonEitzen - I generally find that Americans will tend more often (but not always) to qualify MLK with "Jr". Most of the rest of the world tends not to.
    – Jon Story
    Nov 30, 2015 at 10:51
  • 2
    @JonStory Probably because all of us grew up in a town with a street bearing his full name, title and suffix included. In my case: "Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive" Nov 30, 2015 at 14:12
  • 1
    @Two-BitAlchemist Oh, but I thought you'd celebrate "Martin Luther King day"? Nov 30, 2015 at 14:32
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    Some of these are context dependent. In the UK if you said "Hillary" and people had to guess who you were talking about, they would probably guess Sir Edmund Hillary. I believe my IQ is larger than my hat size.
    – abligh
    Nov 30, 2015 at 14:49
  • 1
    You touch on a good point. "Arnold" or "Arnie" is ambiguous, but "Ah-nold" (said with a bad Austrian accent) is unmistakably Schwarzenegger. It's all about context, familiarity and convention.
    – R.M.
    Nov 30, 2015 at 18:48

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