The Brazilian soccer legend Pelé died last week at 82. He was known as perhaps the greatest player in the history of his sport. He was also known by just one name.

Pelé is an example of a mononym: a name composed of a single word. People who go by one name are considered mononymous, and many are far from anonymous. They’re among the most famous people in the world. No last name required.

Some, like Pelé (born Edson Arantes do Nascimento) are nicknames. The musical world is filled with them. Think P!nk (Alecia Hart), Lizzo (Melissa Jefferson), Bono and Edge from U2 (Paul Hewson and Dave Evans), ?uestlove from The Roots (Ahmir Thompson), Sting (Gordon Sumner), Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers (Michael Balzary), Slash from Guns N’ Roses (Saul Hudson), and Eminem (Marshall Mathers).

Others go by just their first name: Beyoncé (Knowles), Prince (Nelson), Madonna (Ciccone), Adele (Adkins) and Cher (Sarkisian). Still others use their middle name, like Drake (Aubrey Graham) and Rihanna (Robyn Fenty).

This isn’t a new phenomenon. The great galleries of the world are filled with works by mononymous artists: Rembrandt (Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn), Michelangelo (Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni), Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio), Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino) and Donatello (Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi).

Two of the best-known French writers and thinkers took on mononyms. We know François-Marie Arouet as Voltaire, and Jean-Baptiste Poquelin as Molière.

Then there are the ancients: Aristotle, Socrates, Plato, Homer, Confucius, Buddha.

Go back far enough, and our ancestors were all mononymous. In the span of history, surnames are relatively new. Many cultures still don’t use them. In Europe, the oldest recorded surnames are from the year 916. As notes, the Netherlands didn’t have compulsory surnames until 1811, Thailand didn’t until 1913 and Turkey didn’t until 1934.

Mononyms are a name and a brand. They’re easy to remember, and easy to fit in a headline or on a marquee. That’s not true for Hubert Wolfe­schlegel­stein­hausen­berger­dorff (1914-1997), who according to Guinness World Records has the longest name ever.

Hubert was no Pelé. His parents gave him 26 middle names, one for each letter of the alphabet, and his last name is abbreviated. So his actual full name is:

Hubert Adolph Blaine Charles David Earl Frederick Gerald Hubert Irvin John Kenneth Lloyd Martin Nero Oliver Paul Quincy Randolph Sherman Thomas Uncas Victor William Xerxes Yancy Zeus Wolfeschlegelsteinhausenbergerdorffwelchevoralternwarengewissenhaftschaferswessenschafewarenwohlgepflegeundsorgfaltigkeitbeschutzenvonangreifendurchihrraubgierigfeindewelchevoralternzwolftausendjahresvorandieerscheinenvanderersteerdemenschderraumschiffgebrauchlichtalsseinursprungvonkraftgestartseinlangefahrthinzwischensternartigraumaufdersuchenachdiesternwelchegehabtbewohnbarplanetenkreisedrehensichundwohinderneurassevonverstandigmenschlichkeitkonntefortpflanzenundsicherfreuenanlebenslanglichfreudeundruhemitnichteinfurchtvorangreifenvonandererintelligentgeschopfsvonhinzwischensternartigraum.

Or Wolfe­schlegel­stein­hausen­berger­dorff for “short”.

And what did Hubert do for a living? He was – I couldn’t make this up – a typesetter.

Stuart Foxman is a Toronto-based freelance writer, who helps clients’ products, services, ideas and organizations to come alive. Follow me on Twitter @StuartFoxmanconnect with me here on LinkedIn, or check me out at I would love to hear from you. More original posts coming regularly about communications, information, motivation, writing, branding, creativity, media, marketing, persuasion, messages, learning, etc.

January 4, 2023

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