Abbé B—, who came from R— in Italy
April 7, 2009 2:24 PM   Subscribe

Say I'm writing a story and I want to emulate the old practice of referring to proper nouns by initials: i.e. Dr. M— from the town of S—. Where and when did this start? Why did they do this? (It hides the person's name, but from the author's perspective, is it to give his story an air of veracity, as with Defoe and Cervantes's works?) Would some names remain hidden and others not? Do I hide the last name only? If a man came from Monte Cristo, would I write M— C— or simply M—? I want as much information on this as possible. The name of this practice, if there is one, might be useful.
posted by Busoni to Writing & Language (13 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
posted by niles at 2:26 PM on April 7, 2009

Lots of previouslys:

1 [niles'] Plausible Explanations: dharthung: it's a literary convention that allows the reader to substitute whatever -------shire comes to their own mind. pracowity quoting this: Novels in early genres, especially courtship novels but also racy novels and social novels like Defoe's, posed as actual found documents, manuscripts discovered by the 'editor' (author) - dairies or letter collections or memoirs - which the 'editor' believes should be published for the edification and entertainment of the public.

2 Plausible Explanations: melissa may: a method to avoid the possibility of libel before the handy "this is a work of fiction so any resemblence to persons living or dead is pure coinkidink" disclaimer now in popular use.

3. Best Answer: Sidhedevil: It's something people did in novels of the 18th and 19th century in order to give people the impression that the characters and places they were writing about were taken from real life; the novelist is following the pattern of 18th-century journalists and satirists who, when they were writing about real-life people, places, and events, would use an initial followed by a blank in order to simultaneously hint to readers whom they were discussing, but avoid libel charges by not actually using the subject's name.
posted by carsonb at 2:44 PM on April 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

Okay, didn't find these when I searched, maybe because I was more focused on people's names. My mistake.

They did do this for people's names, am I right? I seem to recall a Poe story doing this.
posted by Busoni at 3:05 PM on April 7, 2009

Also, is the em-dash the proper symbol to use?
posted by Busoni at 3:06 PM on April 7, 2009

They did this with names, places and sometimes dates. The proper symbol is (I think) the 3-em dash.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 3:10 PM on April 7, 2009

Okay, didn't find these when I searched

Not surprised! There isn't a common factor between the four (including yours) threads, aside from links in the comments. The 'literature' tag comes close, connecting three. The 'Related Questions' box strikes out on all four. You address Defoe and Cervantes; Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, and Susanna Clarke (from memory, is that right?) are the other authors mentioned in the related posts.
posted by carsonb at 3:13 PM on April 7, 2009

Dostoevsky does this a lot, too. He mostly uses it for street names and city names, even though his stories always take place in real places and are usually geographically accurate, so the "use your imagination" or "false realism" explanations wouldn't apply here. Some people have even "reconstructed" his omissions from Crime and Punishment by following the directions the character takes in the book, so he definitely took care to make the setting in Petersburg and nowhere else.

Without having a shred of literary credibility, my impression is that he does it so as not to distract from the story. He doesn't want the readers thinking about the details, wondering whether this road really intersects that road in real life, when they should instead be focusing on the story.
posted by relucent at 8:05 PM on April 7, 2009

I too have always read this convention as an older simple literary device to avoid superfluous distracting specifics in works of fiction.

Apparently it's double adjective day today.
posted by Aquaman at 8:18 PM on April 7, 2009

Relucent, indeed, I recall reading a version of C&P in which the blanked-out names of bridges and the like had been "restored" to their "actual" names.
posted by DavidNYC at 10:41 PM on April 7, 2009

I must find the copy of Crime and Punishment where these are restored, as the blanks drive me nuts. I find them extremely irritating and distracting.
posted by bystander at 5:28 AM on April 8, 2009

Glad you found your answer. I ,for one, hate this convention, find it distracting and annoying.
posted by OHenryPacey at 9:44 AM on April 8, 2009

1, 2, 3, 4, 5. I collect these threads like Pokemon. Shouldn't this be in the FAQ by now? Oh wait, nobody reads that anyway.
posted by Who_Am_I at 6:42 AM on April 9, 2009

It just turned up again recently in Joseph O'Neill's Netherland. The narrator is an equities analyst who works for M—.

Didn't bother me particularly, but it's just the one company name that's blanked out.
posted by tangerine at 4:42 PM on April 9, 2009

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