50 Historical Figures Who Changed Their Names

You might think that you need a catchy name to get attention in your field, but whatever name you were born with, doesn't need to follow you into a successful career. These politicians, artists, philosophers and other historical figures changed their names — some even centuries or millennia ago — and they've stuck.

Famous Leaders and Philosophers

From Roman emperors to revolutionaries, here are several famous leaders and philosophers who've changed their names.

  1. Che Guevara: Popular revolutionary leader Che Guevara's family was half Irish, and his real name was Ernesto Lynch.
  2. Plato: Plato's real name was Aristocles, son of Ariston, of the deem (which means group or borough) Colytus. Plato was simply his teenage nickname.
  3. Leon Trotsky: Russian October Revolution leader Lev Davidovich Bronshtein changed his name to Leon Trotsky, "borrowed" from a prison guard in Odessa.
  4. Nero: The emperor Nero was born Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, named in part in honor of a descendant who served as consul over 200 years earlier.
  5. Genghis Khan: Powerful Mongolian conqueror Genghis Khan was born Temujin. He became Chingis Khan — Leader of all Mongolia — in the early 1200s.
  6. Cardinal Richelieu: The menacing power behind the young Louis XIII in France was born Armand-Jean du Plessis.
  7. Lao Tzu: Lao Tzu means Old Master, but the father of Taoism's real name was Li Erh, which means long ear.
  8. Catherine the Great: The Empress of Russia was actually born a German princess named Sophie Auguste Frederike. She changed her name to Catherine when she married Peter III.
  9. Geronimo: Notorious Native American warrior Geronimo was born with a less intimidating name: Goyaale, which means "the one who yawns."
  10. Emperor Haile Selassie, King of Kings, Conquering Lion of the tribe of Judah: While his royal name is quite memorable, this leader — who brought education and other reforms to Ethiopia — was born in Jamaica as Tafari Makonnen, and later Ras Tafari Makonnen, inspiring the Rastafari movement.
  11. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: Civil rights leader and Nobel Peace Prize Winner Martin Luther King, Jr. was born Michael, but changed his name to Martin Luther, his father's name.
  12. Caligula: Mad Roman emperor Caligula was a member of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, and was named Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus when he was born. Caligula was a nickname given to him by his father's soldiers, and means "little soldier's boot."
  13. Malcolm X: Nation of Islam and Civil Rights leader Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little. He changed his last name to X, as many Nation of Islam members did at the time, in honor of his real African family name that he would never know.
  14. Rasputin: The psychic and close acquaintance of Russian Emperor Nicholas II, Rasputin — born Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin — had several nicknames, including "the Mad Monk."

Artists and Writers

Renaissance painters, American authors and modern architects are just some of the examples of the famous name-changers listed here.

  1. Sandro Botticelli: Italian Early Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli was born Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi.
  2. Hieronymus Bosch: Religious painter Hieronymus — who had a penchant for capturing the misery of sin and hell — was actually named Jeroen Anthoniszoon van Aken, or Hieronymus Anthoniszoon van Aken. Hieronymus is the Latin form of Jerome, and the "Bosch" that the painter signed on his pieces came from the name of his hometown.
  3. Lewis Carroll: The Alice's Adventures in Wonderland writer was born Charles Lutwidge Dodgson but preferred to write under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll.
  4. Mark Twain: Most fans of American literature know that Mark Twain's real name was Samuel Clemens, after moving West.
  5. El Greco: Beloved painter El Greco, "The Greek," was born in Crete as Domenikos Theotokopoulos.
  6. George Eliot: Victorian writer George Eliot was actually a female, named Mary Anne Evans, who wanted her pieces to be taken seriously, not ignored because she was a woman.
  7. Tennessee Williams: Thomas Lanier Williams changed his name to Tennessee because many of his relatives were from that state, while he was raised in St. Louis.
  8. Rebecca West: Named Cicily Fairfield Andrews, this writer and critic — who had affairs with Charlie Chaplin — preferred to use Rebecca West.
  9. Juan Gris: Spanish Cubist painter Juan Gris was actually named Jose Victoriano Gonzalez-Perez.
  10. George Orwell: Born Eric Arthur Blair, George Orwell was the preferred pen name of the 1984 author.
  11. Irving Berlin: Songwriter and producer Irving Berlin was known for White Christmas, Happy Holiday and There's No Business Like Show Business, but he was born Israel Baline.
  12. Harry Houdini: Actually named Erik Weisz, Houdini's childhood friends called him Harry, an American pronunciation of the new spelling his parents gave his first name. Houdini is adapted from the French magician's name Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin.
  13. Le Corbusier: Architect and artist Le Corbusier was born Charles-Edouard Jeanneret.
  14. Man Ray: Iconic photographer Man Ray was born Emmanuel Radnitzky, but as soon as he began getting attention for his work, he changed his name and refused to admit he'd been called anything else.
  15. Leonard Berstein: Legendary conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein was born Louis, which his grandmother insisted upon. He changed his name to Leonard when he was 15, after his grandmother died.
  16. Margot Fonteyn: Ballet dancer Margot Fonteyn was one of the most celebrated ballerinas of her time, and is still a legend. She was born Margaret Hookham, but adapted her name for the stage.

Politicians

U.S. presidents, dictators and other politicians embraced name changes, too.

  1. Ulysses S. Grant: Civil War general and 18th President of the United States Ulysses S. Grant's real name was either Hiram Ulysses or Hiram Simpson, it's still unsure.
  2. David Ben-Gurion: The first prime minister of Israel was born David Gran in Poland.
  3. Willy Brandt: Nobel Peace Prize winner and former Federal Republic of Germany chancellor Willy Brandt changed his name from Herbert Ernst Karl Frahm when he moved to Norway, fleeing the Gestapo at the beginning of WWII.
  4. Ho Chi Minh: North Vietnamese leader during the Vietnam War renamed himself "Nguyen the Patriot" after being born Nguyen Van Thanh, and later, "He Who Enlightens," or Ho Chi Minh.
  5. Amor de Cosmos: British Columbia premier Amor de Cosmos — which is a bastardized translation of "Lover of the Universe" changed him name from William Alexander Smith when he was living in California as a photographer and entrepreneur.
  6. Vladimir Lenin: The Bolshevik revolutionary was born Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov but adopted "Lenin" as his official alias after running underground recruitment campaigns during his exile in Siberia.
  7. Yitzhak Shamir: Polish-born Prime Minister of Israel Yitzhak Jazernicki changed his last name to Shamir, a Hebrew word for thistle and flint.
  8. Nelson Mandela: Born Rolihlahla Mandela, the South African president was renamed Nelson upon entering school.

Miscellaneous Historical Figures

Outlaws, explorers and other historical figures round out our list.

  1. John Cabot: Born Giovanni Caboto, John Cabot was most likely the first European explorer to land on the North American continent, in 1497.
  2. Francisco Pancho Villa: Pancho Villa was born Doroteo Arango, but changed his name after killing the man who raped his sister. He was just 16 at the time.
  3. Pablo Escobar: Infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar's full name was Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria.
  4. Johnny Appleseed: John Chapman was the man who traveled around the United States in the early 1800s, exploring new land and planting apple trees.
  5. Billy the Kid: Old West outlaw and gunfighter Billy the Kid was named William Henry McCarty when he was born, but changed his name after accepting a job from a man he and his gang had previously stolen cattle from.
  6. Butch Cassidy: Legendary — and still celebrated — outlaw Butch Cassidy was born Robert LeRoy Parker in Utah, but when his father died, he hooked up with a "shady local rancher" named Mike Cassidy.
  7. Buffalo Bill: Cowboy showman Buffalo Bill was really named William Frederick Cody, but earned his nickname while supplying buffalo meat to Kansas Pacific Railroad workers.
  8. Calamity Jane: One of the most notorious female characters from the Old West was Calamity Jane, born Martha Jane Cannary. She got her nickname after killing a group of attacking Indians, never missing a single shot.
  9. Sheila Graham Westbrook: Old Hollywood gossip columnist Sheila Graham Westbrook was born Lily Sheil in England before making such a stellar, glamorous career for herself in the U.S.
  10. Pol Pot: Infamous for his depraved killing fields campaign in Cambodia, Pol Pot was born Saloth Sar. Pol Pot is supposedly derived from the phrase, politique potentielle, the French translation of a name given him by the Chinese.
  11. Sojourner Truth: Abolitionist and former slave Isabelle VanWagener — although she sometimes is referred to in historical texts as Isabelle Baumfree — changed her name to Sojourner Truth after supposedly receiving messages from God.
  12. Pele: Iconic Brazilian soccer player Pele's name is known around the world, but he was born Edison Arantes do Nascimiento, after Thomas Edison.

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