I've been reading collections of letters and journals (generally relating to the Napoleonic Wars) published in the first half of the 19th century. Often these contain words that have been partially censored.

Lord Wellington when he came back, only said, "I am glad to see you safe Crauford." The latter said, "Oh, I was in no danger, I assure you." "But I was, from your conduct," said Lord Wellington. Upon which Crauford observed, "He is d____ crusty to-day."

The Private Journal of F. Seymour Larpent, Vol 1, Pg 133

While censorship of potentially blasphemous or othewise rude words is not unexpected, it also happens in people's names. In many cases, this is where the reference could be considered as unflattering but other times the reason is much less obvious.

So, in the following example, the reference to illness could be seen as a personal weakness which required some censorship to maintain the Deputy Paymaster-General's dignity;

I have taken a ride to Malliarda de Sorda, and found the Deputy Paymaster-General H_____ very unwell, with an attack of fever.

The Private Journal of F. Seymour Larpent, Vol 1, Pg 103

However, in the next example, the person whose name is omitted is not referred to again and no further insight into the person or their status is given. So there must have been some other reason for this censorship.

I sat at the grand dinner directly opposite to E_____ who introduced himself to me afterwards in the ballroom.

The Private Journal of F. Seymour Larpent, Vol 1, Pg 118

[NB: While the quoted document is described as a 'private journal', it is actually a collection of letters written home to his family. Also while these examples all come from the same volume, I've seen the same style used in many other publications of the period.]

Was this style of censoring words purely a publishing convention or would a similar form of self-censorship have been expected in private correspondence, between respectable members of polite society? That is, did this form of censorship, which appears in published works (of both fact and fiction), simply mirror conventions that would also be seen in personal letters?

Please note: I'm not asking to have these particular examples explained and I'm fully aware of the reasons for their use in published works.

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    Were these not censored by the publisher instead of the original author?
    – Semaphore
    Commented Mar 1, 2018 at 11:33
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    @Semaphore Since I don't have access to the originals, I've no idea but that is effectively the gist of the question. I know it's a publishing convention but did it also carry over into personal communications?
    – Steve Bird
    Commented Mar 1, 2018 at 11:54
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    That style of elision is common in Victorian literature - quick google search found a consensus that it was a stylistic device, but no real reason for it.
    – MCW
    Commented Mar 1, 2018 at 16:52
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    @Mark C. Wallace: Perhaps as a time/labor saving device? If for example H____ refers to someone named Houndstooth-Spottisfield...
    – jamesqf
    Commented Mar 1, 2018 at 18:57
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    Omission of the identity of an individual was common in a certain type of novel, known as "Roman a Clef", a romance with a key. The technique also occurs in letters from the late 1700s and later, where the recipient would know who was meant, but a casual reader would be in doubt. It is a technique designed to avoid charges of slander, and affairs of honor -- it avoids the inevitable dual with the slandered individual. Commented Aug 14, 2018 at 22:51

1 Answer 1


Your example text is private correspondence showing several abbreviations to the initial (radical apocopes). These are so short that they all look alike. However, some had different motivations. In the 1800s as today, there are at least three reasons texts might abbreviate like this: politeness, cost savings, and the reduction of liability. These apply in varying degree to public and private texts.

First, to preserve formality, writers might seek to avoid shocking their audience with crude language. The presence or absence of slang is a major factor in establishing linguistic register. Eliding all but the first initial can leave curious readers a means of reconstructing the forbidden term, especially if the number of blanks is apparent. The example "d____" shows such an elision. Did the author see this first in published text? It's possible, but I doubt very much low-register speech was republished in high-register outlets in the 1700s.

Second, abbreviation and shorthands are attractive when the handwriting act is a bottleneck to composition. By comparison, editorial style guides and composition advice tend to avoid bespoke abbreviations, so that the published product appears clear and complete. Describing the Deputy Paymaster-General of Malliarda de Sorda as "H_____" does little to obscure his identity, so it was probably used to save time. "E_____" was also someone who needed no further introduction; writing out the name wouldn't have paid off. This style wouldn't have been copied from published works since published works have no need of it.

Third, and similarly, discretion is advised when a text might be widely read. Newspapers get sued for defamation after publishing information that might have gone unnoticed in a personal letter. Similarly, court filings may mention an Individual 1 or a John Doe when someone's identity would be counterproductive to disambiguate. Since noone here is being criticized and the letters were not meant for publication, I don't see any evidence of this case in your examples.

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    This doesn't really address the core question: Did these styles of elision also appear in private correspondence? If they did, was it the cause of, or as a result of, the same conventions in the publishing world?
    – Steve Bird
    Commented Dec 7, 2018 at 6:05
  • Yes, you found these styles occurring in private correspondence. I've just made some edits to try to align the answer with your questions. Commented Dec 7, 2018 at 16:38
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    I read them in a published book, so I've no idea whether the given examples are purely a result of them being edited for publication or if they existed in that form in the original...which is what prompted my question in the first place.
    – Steve Bird
    Commented Dec 7, 2018 at 17:11
  • Is there any evidence suggesting that the editor of "The Private Journal of F. Seymour Larpent" changed the text? Commented Dec 7, 2018 at 17:37
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    As the "journal" originated as a number of letters, and they aren't presented as such in the published book, I would say that they were certainly edited to a certain extent. However, I'm not concerned about these particular examples exclusively. I wanted to know if, in general, private correspondence of the period was expected (by the social standards of the day) to include this sort of elision.
    – Steve Bird
    Commented Dec 7, 2018 at 17:49

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