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silly question, and I'm not sure this is even necessarily the right forum, but it's the most appropriate on StackExchange, so here we are.

Why is it, in older books, that years are sometimes redacted and replaced with a dash when writing the date in letters and so forth?

Here is an example, from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein:

Letter 1

St. Petersburgh, Dec. 11th, 17--

TO Mrs. Saville, England

You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied...

I've seen this in many (mostly older) books, and my only hypothesis is that it is/was a fashionable attempt to try not to make the book seem outdated quite so quickly; or as a sort of faux attempt to feign respect for privacy, within the world of the novel itself.

In a similar vein, in Frankenstein, several curse words (D--n) are also redacted. I assume this is a sort of Victorian modesty in not printing profanity, but if I'm wrong, I'd love to be corrected on that, as well.

EDIT: I just received this back from the reference librarian (libraries are so great!):

It seems that there is no definitive explanation, but several explanations seem to come up over and over again. I am including the best of what I found online, rather than some of the random information that is posted (though, I will include one online discussion that might be interesting for you all the same).

  • From author John Barth: "Initials, blanks, or both were often substituted for proper names in nineteenth century fiction to enhance the illusion of reality. It is as if the author felt it necessary to delete the names for reasons of tact or legal liability. Interestingly, as with other aspects of realism, it is an illusion that is being enhanced, by purely artificial means."

  • Electronic Labyrinth: Postmodernism and the Postmodern Novel "... a literary convention of the time when many books and pamphlets were written criticising the government of the day, or important figures, by using false names... Some rather scurrilous stories were also printed which were thinly veiled parodies or criticisms of important figures. So when Jane Austen wrote the __shire regiment, or the Earl of__, she was a)avoiding the pitfall of being accused of inaccuracy and b) avoiding the pitfall of being accused of criticism of some important political figures."

  • Here is that discussion I mentioned: Republic of Pemberley Archive: More or less:

  • Here is one more online discussion with a very nice and referenced answer, though the source page is no longer available. It discusses the use of this convention in epistolary novels (novels written in the form of letters):

Since I think a couple of these links came up in the answers below, I'm just going to upvote them all and mark as answered the closest one (not that it was a quiz; but there were many good suggestions, and I can only mark one as the answer...).

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My guess would be that there isn't a record of the exact year. The writer, perhaps, only wrote "Dec. 11th" since the recipient already knew what year it was. Maybe historians or whoever were only able to guess the century because of context. (although I'm not at all qualified to answer this - I'm only guessing) – advs89 Jan 21 '11 at 3:52
Well, that makes sense in non-fiction, and in some heavily world-building or mythopoeic fiction like LOTR where the text is supposed to have been "found", but I didn't necessarily get that impression (yet) from Frankenstein. It happens so frequently in some fiction, that I suspect something else might be at play, some fad during the time period perhaps. – Sdaz MacSkibbons Jan 21 '11 at 3:58
It was definitely done with dates and names that did not exist at all. I am reading Âmes Grises by Claudel at the moment, and he writes about the town of V., so that we supposedly never find out where the scandal in the story took place, thought it is a work of fiction. You are right that this was done more often in the past. I think your hypotheses might very well be true; I don't know, but I think it has something to do with not being caught on "facts" that do not match up with the real places or times or people. – Cerberus Jan 21 '11 at 4:12
I didn't realize that Frankenstein redacted dates. From your question I assumed that it only redacted profanity. (which would be irrelevant to my hypothesis) – advs89 Jan 21 '11 at 4:40
Question: Is the word here really redact? My dictionary defines redact as edit text for publication. Is there another word that describes the action you highlight in your question? – Jimi Oke Jan 21 '11 at 4:50

9 Answers 9

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Austen, Bronte, and others used this device also for names of people and places and even regiment names (Austen). Why would they do this? To avoid accusations of inaccuracy (perhaps the author is taking liberties with historical facts for the purpose of the story), or even libel. I found this on a google answers forum:

It's also a fall-out from a literary convention of the time when many books and pamphlets were written criticising the government of the day, or important figures, by using false names. Defoes' Gullivers Travels is possibly the best known of the earlier ones. Since the reporting of Parliamentary discussions was banned until about 1808, it had to be reported in newspapers under false names (and Samuel Johnson first did it by reporting the activities of the people of Lilliput!). Some rather scurrilous stories were also printed which were thinly veiled parodies or criticisms of important figures.

I would also agree that with redacted dates, this would avoid tying the story to a particular time; obviously that becomes less effective as the centuries pass ;)

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"Defoes'" ? Actually Swift's? – Will Robertson Jan 21 '11 at 15:13
I don't follow the logic here. I don't deny that this was an issue, I just can't see how it would lead to the practice we are discussing. If you mean to lampoon Sir Robert Walpole, I can't see a difference politically between calling your character Sir Ralph Walbone or Sir R___ W___ - or if there is a difference I would think you would be safer using the made-up name, as it's easier for you to protest innocence. – Colin Fine Jan 21 '11 at 16:02
@Colin Fine It does seem a little convoluted; perhaps the idea is that if you use Sir ____, there's no danger that your character's name can be confused with a real person's name, someone you haven't intended to lampoon at all. @Will Robertson - I know, I should have put a [sic] in there ;) – gpr Jan 21 '11 at 22:25

Some (cheap?) writers still do similar things. For example, in one book of a German “mass production” author, the following dialog takes place:

“Where are you from?” she asked.
“I’m from …”, and he told her the name of the city.

When I read this I was taken aback by how clumsy that sounded (in particular since this information played absolutely no role later on). And yet this style of obfuscating place names permeates all his books.

The most plausible explanation I could think of was that this should make the books seem “more intimate” because their lack of precision could place them in which ever city the reader was coming from.

The rationale is essentially the same as your conjecture that years were redacted “not to make the book seem outdated” so I would support your hypothesis.

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Yeah, it seems likely to me, as well. I'm hoping for something authoritative on this, because it's been bugging me for some time now. I think I'll put a request into the ol' reference librarian at my library, and post the results if they turn something up. – Sdaz MacSkibbons Jan 21 '11 at 12:13

I think this is merely a convention of fiction, which doesn't happen to be common any more. It may be, as some have suggested in comments, that it is a device that makes the work appear more like reportage.

In Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, Douglas Hofstadter spends several pages considering the translation of a single street name from a Russian novel (Crime and Punishment I think, but I may be misremembering). The street name is given as an initial, but he states that in this case it would have been obvious to anybody who knew St Petersburg which street it was.

If Hofstadter is right then in that case the device was used to remove specificity so the author did not commit himself to that particular street but anybody in the know would realise. But often (as with years) it does not appear to be hiding a specific year, but on the contrary suggesting to the reader that there is a specific year even though there need not be.

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it is indeed the first line of Crime and Punishment that Hofstadter considers. – RoundTower Oct 18 '11 at 22:06
"On an exceptionally hot evening early in July a young man came out of the garret in which he lodged in S. Place and walked slowly, as though in hesitation, towards K. bridge." – Hugo Dec 30 '12 at 23:42

I've seen this convention in many science fiction stories set in the (author's) future, and I always assumed it was done for two reasons to avoid pinning the author down on when some technology might be invented or some historical trend take place, and to allow a story to seem imminent without quickly being dated. Like if you write, "When the first expedition landed on Mars in 2043...", that might sound like a plausible date for someone living in 2011. But by the time 2043 actually rolls around, if no one has yet been to Mars it will definitely sound strange to the reader. So a vague "in the 21st century" or "in 20--" lets the author weasel out. Likewise, many stories are intended to be set "sometime in the next few years". But if the author actually gives a year, like writing in 2011 he says in 2014, then in just a few years his book will be dated.

I've seen movies where the action bounces between the past and the present where they'll throw up subtitles that say "New York, 1942" and "Boston, present day" rather than giving an exact year. I've always assumed they did this to avoid dating the movie to quickly. Of course if the movie was made in 1960, someone watching it today will quickly see that technology, clothing styles, etc. are not HIS "present day". So the device doesn't prevent a movie from being dated indefinitely. But it can buy you a decade or so.

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It was an attempt to make it look as if the letter was somewhat anonymized, suggesting the letter was an actual letter and that the book is in fact an account of real events.

Indeed, if the author makes an attempt to conceal part of the data, supposedly to protect the privacy of the people involved, it makes them more real in the reader's mind.

This is the opposite of the traditional warning "The characters in this ... are purely fictional and any similarity with real..." (which typically means that the characters are in fact very much real and might sue the author).

Another reason is to prevent people from tracking accurately the sequence of events and thereby avoid potential inconsistencies. For instance, if 50 pages later on you get a newspaper clipping dated December 9th, 1798 you will be unable to ascertain if the events reported occurred a couple days before the letter or years later. By not giving precise dates, the author keeps the reader from guessing too much of the plot ahead of time.

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I'd disagree with "similarity with real people is coincidental" meaning "we pretend it's not real" - I'd rather say it means "we're protecting our collective butt from people who'd claim that 'the exact thing happened to them, really, honest,' and therefore we owe them a share of the profits." – Piskvor Jan 21 '11 at 16:41
@Piskvor: It depends on the circumstances. When a book is written based on the real story of people currently alive (political intrigue, for instance) the author could be sued for defamation or libel. Saying that "similarity with..." serves the double purpose of covering the author's ass AND suggest to the audience that even though the names have been changed, the characters and their actions are real. – Sylverdrag Jan 22 '11 at 11:12
Comment 11 months after the original post: "Resemblance to real people is purely coincidental" is a stock phrase printed in the front of many novels. While some may be using it to protect themselves when the resemblance is not coincidental at all, I think most of the time it's a completely accurate statement. – Jay Dec 20 '11 at 15:36

Omitting the profanity is almost certainly Victorian modesty[citation-needed].

Omitting the year is most likely a mechanism to not tie the story to a particular year[citation-needed]. One sees something similar in some movies that declare the time frame to be "Present Day" or "Near Future".

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I've noticed the same happen with names, especially with an elevated title. My feeling was that this was to preserved modesty, or to avoid embarrassment, while appearing to be based in the real world. I guess that the style of writing is reporting.

Having read your question, and being reminded of seeing dates, erm, covered, it's possible that the author has the opposite concern- that the text will be read as fact, and the author needs to conceal information to remove it from reality.

Any thoughts?

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This doesn't apply to fiction works, but in some cases it may have been to protect privacy.

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From what I've been able to find in my research is that it gives an approximation. By giving only the first few numbers in a year, followed by dashes, such as 19--, it allows the readers to fill in the rest with what best suits their imaginations. Names of towns were also often left as a single letter and dashes in novels for the same reason. S----- In Texas could be associated with any number of towns that a reader could in some way connect with, especially if it is a work of fiction. In this case the author doesn't claim it to be in a specific town, but the reader associates it with a name of a town they know. Names were also commonly written in this form, usually to avoid an unpleasant connection, such as to someone famous, a relative, or to a religious figure. It’s simply a way to add anonymity

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protected by Jasper Loy Apr 10 '12 at 8:46

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