A very funny observation by John Holbo:

First, I happened to quote something from Hegel’s Philosophy of Mind whose cover reads in toto: “being part three of the Encyclopaedia of The Philosophical Sciences (1830) translated by William Wallace together with the Zusätze in Boumann’s text (1845) translated by A.V. Miller, with Foreword by J.N. Findlay, F.B.A.” There’s a bunch of scrollwork, too. I see that the latest cover omits the scrollwork and the information about Findlay’s degree. This is all fine. But suppose, hypothetically, you wanted to know the author – Hegel’s – name; that is, his initials and/or at least one given name; as opposed to the translator’s initials or the introducer’s degree? Well, presumably you would look inside. Where you would … not find it. Nowhere does this book tell you anything more about the author than that he was named … Hegel. He’s, like, the Sting of philosophy.

This reminds me of a story. Someone – can’t remember who – was complaining about someone else – can’t remember who – giving Hegel lectures and presuming to call the subject ‘Georg Hegel’, or even just ‘Georg’. Apparently even Hegel’s wife didn’t call him ‘Georg’. The story goes: she called him ‘Professor Hegel’. But I still think it would be ok to include his initials on a cover.

I have to admit I don’t think I would have been able to come up with Hegel’s given name to save my life. Very strange. The only other examples that come to mind of famous writers known only by a surname are pseudonyms like Voltaire. (Via Avva, who wonders if his wife called him “Professor Hegel” even in bed.)


  1. Which reminds me of the slanderous story about the Reverend Ian Paisley (Northern Irish exotic), who came to bed one night after his wife, causing her to exclaim, “My God! Your feet are cold.”
    “There, my dear,” replied Paisley, “I’ve told you that in private you may call me Dr Paisley.”

  2. I suspect the surname-only habit comes with certain varieties of nomenclature, which tend to be particularly long-winded when written in full, eg. Ancient Roman (Cicero, Horace), aristocratic Spanish (Cervantes, Gongora), and Enlightenment German (they all had so many initials–G. W. F. Hegel, J. W. von Goethe, F. W. J. von Schelling, etc.). There are famous one-name artists too, also with rococo full names, eg. Michelangelo and Rembrandt.

  3. Jimmy Ho says

    Ever since he started publishing under his real name, Etiemble (who happens to be an admirer of Voltaire) always omitted his first name, René. In a radio interview I heard almost twenty years ago, he explained that he took the habit very early because he couldn’t bear the hiatus (René Étiemble).

  4. Jimmy Ho says

    Conrad’s comment brings to mind the opposite habit, common among the romantics, to use only the first name. It started apparently with Rousseau, simply called Jean-Jacques (by himself, then his admirers), then extended to “Gérard” [de Nerval], “Jean-Paul” [Richter], et al.
    As for initials, France has two living examples: psychoanalyst J.-B. [Jean-Baptiste] Pontalis and novelist JMG [Jean-Marie Gustave] Le Clézio.

  5. Actually, I would next look, Holbo’s presumptions aside, on the spine. But I do know Hegel’s given names, if not all of the ordering of them.
    Incidentally, Rembrandt is often R. van Rijn in Dutch and something else in Cherman, but I forget what.

  6. Jimmy Ho says

    Vrin, the main philosophy publisher in France, never writes the given names of famous philosophers on the covers of its “classical library” collection. On the spine (looking at the shelf behind me), it is all “Kant”, “Comte”, “Descartes”, “Spinoza”, “Husserl”, etc. The only half-exception is Henri Gouhier (author of Le théâtre et l’existence), noted as “H. Gouhier”, but he was still alive and teaching at the time of publication.

  7. Then there’s the mainly francophone affectation of creating a pseudonym by approximating the pronounciation of your initials, like the Belgian cartoonist Hergé and the French designer Erté.

  8. Jimmy Ho says

    Affectation? I don’t know (Hergé comes from RG, the reverse initials of Georges Rémi). Before I dropped my television, I remember seeing an episode of Law & Order where the detectives were examining the suspect’s Rollodex, full of famous names, and exclaimed (in French dubbing): “He even has Georges Doubia‘s private number!” Obviously, nobody told the voice actor how “Dubbya” had to be read (the best “translation” would actually be that of the Canard enchaîné: Deubeulyou).

  9. Jimmy Ho says

    (What happened? So, “Hergé” comes from RG, the reverse initials of Georges Rémi; before I dropped my Television, I remember seeing an episode where, etc.)

  10. For my part, I know Georg Wilhelm Friedrich’s name and the ordering, but then, I was a philosophy student.
    My public library had a recording of someone reading Hegel’s Philosophy of History (unabridged, believe it or not!), and I taped the biographical intro because it was kind of funny — the reader would pause before long German words/place names, then proceed to mangle them.
    As for looking on the spine: Glancing over to the Hegel on my bookshelf, I see Hegel’s Science of Logic (A.V. Miller), Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (Knox), and Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (A.V. Miller). His initials aren’t even there, and the titles are rendered as though the translator/editor is the author. Which strikes me as weird — none of my other translated philosophy texts do this. It’s not, for example, Heidegger’s Being and Time, by John Macquarrie.

  11. That’s cos Heidegger’s Been and Gorn.

  12. Jimmy: I fixed it; the problem was that you used a less-than sign, which HTML takes as an operator (or whatever the hell you call signs that make HTML do something, usually vanish your text).
    This business of titles on spines reminds me of an entirely unrelated story: once in a record store I was glancing along the spines (this was back in LP/album days, thirty years ago) and saw a fat box labeled BARTHOLDY – SYMPHONIEN. How come I never heard of this Bartholdy who wrote a bunch of symphonies? I picked up the box and discovered that it was Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. Ach, ja, natürlich: “Mendelssohn” sounds so… you know. Unsuitable.)

  13. Imagine one parenthesis more or one less in that last paragraph; I’m too lazy to go back and change it.

  14. “The only other examples that come to mind of famous writers known only by a surname are pseudonyms like Voltaire.”
    Isn’t it true of lots of philosophers, and 19th century German ones in particular? What’s Schopenhauer’s first name?

  15. It was impossible to inveigle
    Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
    Into offering the slightest apology
    For his Phenomenology.
    –a clerihew by W. H. Auden, from “People” (1953)
    (I wonder whether Auden made it inveegle/Heegle or invaygle/Haygle? I use inveegle and Haygle myself, but I’m no Auden.)

  16. Jimmy Ho says

    Thanks, LH!

  17. Is Cyrano de Bergerac sufficiently famous that ignorance of his first name is unusual? (It’s Hector, by the way.)

  18. Jimmy Ho says

    According to my edition of L’autre monde, ou les Etats et Empires de la Lune (his “journey to the Moon”, written under the anagram “Dyrcona”), he was born (in 1617) Savinien de Cyrano, adding “de Bergerac” (from a land owned by his family) in 1638.
    Most people only know him as Cyrano or Cyrano de Bergerac, more from the immensely popular drama by Edmond Rostand (1897) than his original “libertine” work. His letters are signed either “De Bergerac” or “De B.”

  19. Jimmy Ho says

    It is also noted that he used the pseudonym “Hercule de Bergerac” in his early writings.

  20. How about Colette?

  21. Thank you, thank you, thank you for the opportunity to allow Monty Python’s Philiosophers’ song another outing!
    Immanuel Kant was a real pissant
    Who was very rarely stable.
    Heidegger, Heidegger was a boozy beggar
    Who could think you under the table.
    David Hume could out-consume
    Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
    And Wittgenstein was a beery swine
    Who was just as schloshed as Schlegel.
    There’s nothing Nietzche couldn’t teach ya
    ‘Bout the raising of the wrist.
    Socrates, himself, was permanently pissed.
    John Stuart Mill, of his own free will,
    On half a pint of shandy was particularly ill.
    Plato, they say, could stick it away–
    Half a crate of whisky every day.
    Aristotle, Aristotle was a bugger for the bottle.
    Hobbes was fond of his dram,
    And René Descartes was a drunken fart.
    ‘I drink, therefore I am.’
    Yes, Socrates, himself, is particularly missed,
    A lovely little thinker,
    But a bugger when he’s pissed.

  22. Diogenes says

    Of course, you have to remember that the familiar structure of western names (forename-middlename-familyname) is a culturally and historically specific arrangement. Personally I find it aesthetically bureaucratic, and as I don’t have a middle initial I feel incomplete when, for example, filling US immigration forms that assume that I do. Even Harry Trueman felt obliged to interpose an “S” for the sake of wholesomeness. To be known by a single name is a welcome throw-back to a nicer age. Madonna I love you.

  23. Jimmy Ho says

    Cultural differences can lead to some unnecessary hair-splitting. I am reminded of the debate occurring in late 70s-early 80s among francophone sinologists about the proper way to write disyllabic Chinese noms de plume (biming 筆名): Michelle Loi (a translator and an expert on modern Chinese literature, but also an active supporter of the Cultural Revolution) would insist that, according to pinyin rules, one should write “Luxun”, “Laoshe”, “Bajin”, and so on, while Pierre Ryckmans (then known as “Simon Leys”) would ridicule her and keep separating name and postname (Lu Xun, Lao She).
    We now generally follow the latter’s direction, but there is an issue with some pseudonyms like Mao Dun (clearly the word maodun 矛盾 “contradiction”) or Hao Ran (haoran 浩然)We simply have to accept that there is no way to fully render the Chinese wordplay and ambivalence (think about a Chinese having to “translate” a name like “R. U. Sirius”, no footnotes allowed).

  24. Jimmy Ho says

    Of course, in the case of Pa Kin (“Ba Jin” 巴金), I find any other rendering disrespectful, since he used it consistently with his Western correspondents. Add to it that the “Kin”, coming from Kropot-kin, makes no sense otherwise.

  25. Jimmy Ho says

    To be clear, my example with Loi and Ryckmans refers to the fight that started with the latter’s translation, as “Simon Leys”, of Lu Xun’s Yecao 野草 as La mauvaise herbe (instead of Herbes sauvages), to which Loi, THE “Luxunist”, responded with a pamphlet that outed Leys as the Belgian diplomat Pierre Ryckmans, and attacked him for insulting the memory of the great writer and the whole Chinese people. Yes, this was all before Internet flames.

  26. Ian Myles Slater says

    On a less contentious note than the examples given, anyone interested in the problems of translating English puns and other wordplay into other languages will find plenty of examples at — Greg Pringle’s “Harry Potter in Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese Translation.” (See also
    It includes breakdowns of how well personal names are handled (or not). “Sirius Black” (if not R.U. Sirius) is one example. E.g., in both the Mainland and Taiwan Chinese versions, the star-name is translated, but the Japanese and Vietnamese versions offer transliterations instead.)
    As Pringle frequently notes in assorted contexts, Rowling’s playful useful of English (and bits of other European languages) has to be a headache to conscientious translators; and that assumes that they recognize what is going on, when many native speakers miss a lot.

  27. John Emerson says

    OT: Gregory Abu Faraj Bar Hebraeus
    Balbulus Notker.

  28. Then there’s the mainly francophone affectation of creating a pseudonym by approximating the pronounciation of your initials, like the Belgian cartoonist Hergé and the French designer Erté.
    The Jews do it for their rabbis all the time: Rashi, Rambam, Ramban, et al. (How long it takes for a rabbi to earn such a pseudonym is something I don’t know.)

  29. language hat wrote:

    …a less-than sign, which HTML takes as an operator (or whatever the hell you call signs that make HTML do something…

    It’s not an operator, but < does signify the beginning of a tag, and it makes browsers go crazy trying to find the matching >. If you really want < or >, type &lt; or &gt;.


  30. ‘Colette’ is traditionally considered to be a pseudonym. The real Cyrano’s name, as far as can be established, was Hector Savinien Cyrano de Bergerac. (I wrote an article about the guy in my university days.)
    The subject of French affection for initials reminded me of the eccentric former CEO of now-defunct Vivendi Universal, who liked to call himself j6m – standing for “Jean-Marie Messier, moi-meme maitre du monde”. He even named his book “”:
    As for Hegel’s wife, I suspect that she didn’t call him anything at all in bed. As far as I know, it was kinda frowned upon at the time, and she sounds like a thoroughly decent housewife.

  31. And that excellent Monty Python’s Philiosophers’ song reminded me of a highly obscene Russian song by a guy who calls himself Psoy Korolenko [Псой Короленко] – also about famous thinkers. A relatively less obscene bit go as follows:
    Все Лаканы и Гваттари
    Все за хрен меня хватали.
    (Припев два раза. Припев два раза.)
    Я Батай, а ты Лакан –
    Пойдем скорей плясать канкан!
    (Припев два раза. Припев два раза.)
    Подорога-Подорога, ты за хрен меня потрогай.
    Вообрази, что я Батай – и за хрен меня хватай.
    (Припев два раза. Припев два раза.)
    У миленка мудрый вид,
    Он мудрее всех Деррид…
    et caetera

  32. Jimmy Ho says

    where do you get the “Hector” part from? I can’t see it in any of my books (they all give only “Savinien de Cyrano” at birth).
    Messier wanted to be called J2M. After he acquired the private channel Canal+, the irreverent “puppet” program Les guignols de l’info mocked his megalomany by making it J6M. He pretended to take it as a humorous hommage and adopted it as a part of his then-glorious “super-entrepreneur” image.

  33. Jimmy Ho says

    Sorry, I forgot the address: “Sredni vashtar, where do you get, etc.”

  34. Jimmy Ho says

    I thought that the addition of “Hector” could have been one of the details invented by Rostand, but in the last scene, where the dying Cyrano imagines his epitaph, he says “ci-gît Hercule Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac”.
    My temporary hypothesis is that, at some point, the pseudonymous “Hercule” has been replaced by the more common (and plausible to those who made the change) “Hector”. I am still curious to know when this happened.

  35. Jimmy Ho,
    You are right in the sense that Savinien is the only one in the birth register:
    “Le sixiesme mars mil six cens dix neuf Savinien, fils d’Abel de Cyrano, escuier, sieur de Mauvieres, et de damoiselle Esperance Bellenger…”
    However, it does not mean that Cyrano used no other names himself. For instance, there is a debt recognition note signed (presumably by the same person) with the name Alexandre.
    “Hector Savinien” was, if I recall rightly (don’t have the books handy, obviously), the version retained by Cyrano’s modern French biographers.

  36. Jimmy Ho says

    Sredni vashtar,
    Thank you for the response. Alexandre, followed by various combinations of “(de) Cyrano” and “de Bergerac”, is indeed listed, along with Hercule, as one of the pseudonyms used by Cyrano.
    This is not the case of “Hector”, though, and, as you point out, that name does not appear on the baptism act (found very late in the 19th century) either. As I wrote earlier, none of the biographical accounts I have handy (by modern French scholars such as Jeannine Kohn-Etiemble and Maurice Laugaa; unfortunately, I don’t have Frédéric Lachèvre’s edition) make any mention of it.
    Google tells me that the “Hector-Savinien” version is widespread, though mostly on non-French websites (it’s not in the English and French Wikipedia article, but the German vesion does have it, once again without reference). At this point I would only trust printed sources, though.

  37. Jimmy Ho says

    We forgot Stendhal (aka Henri Beyle), though unlike Voltaire (anagram of AROVET LI, “Arouet le Jeune”), it is entirely pseudonymous.

  38. Jimmy Ho,
    Then I guess you’re right and it’s just a strange twist of my memory, however stange it seems to me.

  39. Jimmy Ho says

    I hope it is clear that I am not implying that you (and “komfo,amonan”, Lojban blogger!) are “wrong”. Obviously, there is a “Hector” school, but the only expression I can see of it is on line and predominantly in other languages than French. I don’t know who is right, but I wonder why none of the French presentations I have (some of them pretty detailed, but I am far from possessing every thing written on Cyrano) mentions it, hence my genuine curiosity about the origin of the “Hector” claim.

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