The structure of persons’ names has varied across time and geography. In some communities, individuals have been mononymous, that is, each person has received only a single name. This contrasted with the custom among the Romans, who by the Republican era and throughout the Imperial era used multiple names: a male citizen’s name comprised three parts, praenomen (given name), nomen (clan name) and cognomen (family line within the clan) — the nomen and cognomen being virtually always hereditary.[3] Post-antiquity most of them are, however, mononymous in most contexts: Cicero, Pompey, Virgil; and the same goes for the Greeks: Euripides, Xenophon, Aristotle.

Some French authors have shown a predilection for mononyms. In the 17th century, the dramatist and actor Jean Baptiste Poquelin (1622–73) adopted the mononym stage name “Molière”.

In the 18th century, François-Marie Arouet adopted the mononym “Voltaire”, for both literary and personal use, in 1718 after his incarceration in Paris’ Bastille, to mark a break with his past. The new name combined several features. It was an anagram for a Latinized version of his family surname, “Arouet, l[e] j[eune]”; it reversed the syllables of the name of a family château, “Airvault”; and it conveyed connotations of speed and daring through resonance with such French expressions as “voltige”, “volte-face” and “volatile”. “Arouet”, by contrast, could not serve the purposes of the developing societal gadfly, given that name’s associations with “roué” and with an expression that meant “for thrashing.”[4]