Dear Abby...

Dear Abby,

My mother-in-law, “Flossie,” and my father, “Vernon,” are seeing each other romantically. Now, I don’t have a problem with this, since my mother, “Sandra” is no longer with us, and “Flossie” has long since been divorced from his first wife, “Beulah.” But my sister-in-law, “Tarawa,” has an issue with it. And that issue is, do you think it’s odd that everyone in both of our families have names enclosed in quotation marks? And they aren’t the first names anyone would think to use as pseudonyms, like “John” and “Mary” (not their real names) might be. When people write to you, do they choose the pseudonyms that the characters in their private dramas will be known as in your column? Or do your editors select the pseudonyms, with an eye for variety? And what about my own name? Will your editors select an appropriate one for me? Or need I select a pseudonym for myself, such as…

Curious on the SDMB

Wrong forum?

Dear cmkeller:
You is what you is and you ain’t what you aint.

No, it’s a factual question about how pseudonyms in advice columns work…are they verbatim from the letter-writer, or do the column’s editors insert them?

So much for trying to ask it in a humorous manner…

Chaim Mattis Keller


Who would be better to ask about this than an advice columnist? I just got off the phone with Dan Savage who writes “Savage Love”, an advice column for people of all lifestyles, published in the Onion and other fine publications, like the Advocate, National Review and Martha Stewart Living.

Dan admits that he sometimes changes a reader’s signature “name” to whatever he feels like calling them or whatever makes the column work. Hence, a reader asking about the health issues related to (well, let’s keep GQ PG-rated this week) might be called by a name that forms an acronym, both of which describe the subject. I’d be surprised if he (and others) didn’t also use poetic license on the “names” in letters.

cmkeller, I’ve always wondered the same thing. Should I come up with witty pseudonyms for everyone in my little drama, or will Abby (or one of her minions) do so for me?

I think there are a lot of reasons for either Abby or the letter writer to choose unusual names. For instance, a lot of people actually do have the names John and Mary, so they wouldn’t do as pseudonyms in those cases. I had a chemistry teacher in high school who would always use the name “Gertrude” when she made up problems for us to solve. She used that name because it was memorable and, let’s face it, there aren’t too many high schoolers named Gertrude these days, and it’s not the type of name that’s likely to come back in style.

This is just a WAG, but I think that Abby might change the names if she feels it’s appropriate, especially if you haven’t indicated that you have changed the names yourself. She doesn’t want a lawsuit for defamation of character, after all. I’ve noticed that some of the letters end with “If you print this, don’t use my real name”–so then Abby makes one up for you. On the other hand, other letters say, “If you print this, don’t use my real name. Instead, sign me…” That indicates that that person came up with his/her own moniker.

I think that the letters Abby prints are often heavily edited. Most of the letters seem pretty articulate–do you think that the average person is that articulate of a letter writer these days?

Tamex in the Twin Cities

In her first book of collected Dear Abby letters, Abigail Van Buren wrote that she selected the pseudonyms herself, and also changed other details that might identify the letter-writer. For example, a teacher in Chicago with two sons asking for advice about dealing with her mother-in-law might become a nurse in Boston with three daughters. She mentions in the book that many times, someone whose name and other details coincidentially matched the published pseudonyms would then write with great indignation, demanding to know how Dear Abby learned about the private troubles of his/her life.

Thanks, guys!

Curiousity Sated by SDMB

Dear cmkeller, my sincerest apologies for a slow reply. I’m so glad delphica was kind enought to fill you in.

Warm regards,

Dear cmkeller,

It is with great consternation that I read your letter to “Abby” describing my father Vernon and his romance with Flossie. In particular, your casual mention of the fine woman who was my mother disturbs me as I feel you’re not doing her memory the service it deserves. Also, I’d appreciate you getting your facts straight: Tamara, my sister-in-law, was incensed to see her name misspelled in the column. If you’re going to share my family’s gossip with “Abby” you can at least get it right!


Indignant on the Internet.