The former MI5 and MI6 agent David John Moore Cornwell used the name John le Carré on his numerous spy novels. Wikipedia explains why he had to write under a pseudonym:

he wrote the detective story A Murder of Quality (1962) and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), as "John le Carré" (le Carré is French for "the Square") – a pseudonym required because Foreign Office officers were forbidden to publish in their own names.

But why did he choose that particular pseudonym? As a British intelligence officer writing about British intelligence officers, why did he decide to use a French-sounding name? And for that matter, why that particular name - what was the significance to him of a square?


4 Answers 4


John le Carré explaining his name on a French TV show: John le Carré plaisante sur son pseudonyme - 1989.

He doesn't remember why he chose this name :-)

Transcript of the relevant portion of the interview:

Interviewer: D'abord, une chose évidemment assez étonnante : c'est que votre vrai nom c'est David John Moore Cornwell, et vous avez choisi comme pseudonyme un nom qui sonne plutôt français—Le Carré—pourquoi ?

Le Carré: Alors, je vais vous dire la vérité, et puis je vais vous dire un mensonge ! La vérité c'est que j'étais, au temps où j'ai fait mes débuts d'écrivain, j'étais encore dans le Foreign Office et on m'a dit, c'était l'avis officiel, il faut choisir un nom de plume. Alors, je suis allé à mon éditeur anglais, et il a dit, "Alors, choisissez quelque chose de très simple, de très anglosaxon : Jack Smith, Herb Brown, etc." Et puis, j'ai choisi "John Le Carré". Et la vérité, c'est que je ne sais pas d'où vient ce nom. Mais, la vérité est toujours tellement ennuyante que pour les journalistes j'ai inventé la fiction que j'étais sur… dans un autobus de Londres, et j'ai vu un magasin de chaussures et il s'appelait le magasin de "John Le Carré", j'ai volé le nom, mais c'est un mensonge.

In English:

Interviewer: First, something which is obviously quite surprising: your real name is David John Moore Cornwell, but you chose a pseudonym which sounds rather French—Le Carré—why?

Le Carré: Well, I will tell you the truth, and then I will tell you a lie! The truth is that I was, at the time I made my beginnings as a writer, I was still in the Foreign Office and someone said to me—it was the official line—that I had to choose a pen name. So, I went to my editor, and he said, "So, choose something very simple, very Anglo-Saxon: Jack Smith, Herb Brown, etc." And then, I chose "John Le Carré". And the truth is that I do not know where this name comes from. But the truth is always so boring that for the journalists I invented the fiction that I was on, in a London bus, and I saw a shoe shop and it was called "John Le Carré", and I stole the name, but it's a lie.

  • 2
    One little nitpick: he didn't say he didn't remember, he said he doesn't know. To me, this sounds not like "I don't remember" but "It just came to me, I have no idea where it came from, it just was there in my mind." Oct 31, 2023 at 22:57

We may never know. Quoting The Atlantic article The Double Life of John le Carré (emphasis mine):

Taking the pen name John le Carré (he doesn’t remember where from), Cornwell began to write while still working in intelligence.


Maybe to increase the likelihood of getting published initially?

To a previously unknown author, a French-sounding name would lend some cachet. The semi-opaque world of espionage is intriguing, partly because of the perception that insiders have access to sources of information and other resources, not available to the interested outsider. Going back through the ages in English history, blue bloods had French as a shorthand for "insider". This is fairly ubiquitous in the English milieu, example the motto Dieu et mon droit.

So a new writer able to leverage the impression of being privy to hitherto unrevealed secrets, perhaps due to his access to an inner clique, would undoubtedly pique the interest of an editor reviewing his MSS, in a world then very attuned to the subject, due to cold war tensions.


I think Le Carre's claim that he doesn't know is hogwash. Or whitewash. Whatever. Someone who writes and thinks as he does does nothing without intention. The complete answer may be of a larger context due to the fact that Le Carre is of and from and works for British intelligence. Don't let anything fool you that he "resigned" or "retired". Doesn't happen. He just moved into the PR department. Along with his contemporary, Len Deighton.

When you read Le Carre's legend (I'm sorry, life history) you learn his father was a legendary con man who went afoul of the both the law and the "boys". So he was exposed to the "bent" or crooked life early on. A "square John" (John le Carre) is someone who is honest, forthright, and living straight. From Dictionary.com:

An ordinary honest person; a good citizen; a noncriminal person who can be victimized by, and is contemptuously regarded by, criminals.

Substitute the word "Spy" for "Criminals", and I think you have it. I think he is having a little fun with us, because I would say there is certainly nothing "on the square" about his story, role, or story sources. The fact that he will not reveal this tells us it is his private joke and he wants to keep it that way, knowing that to reveal it would expose something he (and his handlers) does not wish known. I'm sure all his buddies in MI-6 get the joke.

I know this appears to be a lot of conjecture; however, the evidence is all there if you read between the lines, know a bit about how intelligence services really work, and know the code. To me, the smoking gun: the solid, unrefutable proof, is given away by the definition of "Square John".

  • 1
    This is all interesting commentary, but how does it answer the actual question of why he chose that particular pseudonym?
    – Rand al'Thor
    Dec 29, 2017 at 15:55
  • Sorry, disregard my previous comment. I understand what you're saying now.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Dec 29, 2017 at 17:46
  • His claim isn't that he doesn't know, but that he doesn't remember. It's all too easy to make a folk etymology of his pen name, but the original reason? Who knows, maybe he lost a bet, or his buddy picked it for him, or played a game of I spy, or ...
    – muru
    Jan 2, 2018 at 15:57
  • @muru: according to dpithon's answer, his claim is explicitly that he doesn't know. Oct 31, 2023 at 23:01

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