Short take: Agony Aunt

victor steinbok aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM
Sat May 29 04:45:46 UTC 2010

The Sun has a headline today Agony Aunt Ferdinand. Aside from the
rhyme, of sorts (it actually sound more like Our Man Flint to me), it
struck me as a Britishism, which a quick check confirmed (Ann Landers
he is not). An mid-1980s story mentioned OED coming late to the Agony
Aunt party [], but it's now under entry 1.a. for
agony (from 2nd ed.):

1. a. Anguish of mind, sore trouble or distress, a paroxysm of grief.
agony column, (a) the column of a newspaper that contains special
advertisements, particularly those for missing relatives or friends,
and thus often gives evidence of great distress; (b) a regular
newspaper or magazine feature containing readers' questions about
personal difficulties, with replies from the columnist; cf. problem
page s.v. PROBLEM 7(b); agony aunt(ie), a familiar name for the
(female) editor of an agony column (sense b); in extended use, an
adviser on personal, psychological, etc., problems.

... 1863 BURTON Bk. Hunter 40 It was agony to him to hear the beggar's
cry of distress. 1863 Fun 3 Oct. 23/2 Our own agony column. 1880 Times
28 Dec. 10/1 A cryptogram in the agony column. 1930 WYNDHAM LEWIS Let.
30 July (1963) 190 The agony-column of the Times has echoed the rage
of people who considered themselves attacked in the Apes. 1975 P.
MAKINS Evelyn Home Story 9 Perhaps the biggest obstacle the ‘agony
aunties’ faced in the 'thirties was that neither the queries they
dealt with nor the publications which printed them were taken
seriously. Ibid. xiv. 158 The actual writing style of agony columns
has changed quite noticeably over the years. 1979 Observer 11 Mar. 9
Marriage is something I've never wanted and writing an agony column
has confirmed that.Irma Kurtz. 1979 R. KENT Aunt Agony Advises xii.
265 Perhaps a university should start an agony auntie course. 1983
Daily Tel. 7 Nov. 3/4 Confidential counselling ‘agony aunts’to help
police officers under stress is recommended in a report presented to
chief constables. 1984 S. TOWNSEND Growing Pains A. Mole 19, I can't
go on like this. I have written to Auntie Clara, the Agony Aunt.

Note that the first cite for "agony aunt" is from 1975 while "agony
column" that spawned it is over 100 years older. GB is useless, as
usual, as everything of potential value is either mis-tagged or
spurious. GNA has nothing beyond 1980, although it shows Canadian and
Australian hits, as well as several from New Straits Times, finally
hitting US in 1990 or so.

Finally, after several permutations, a hit for 1974:
The Hospital and health services review, Volume 70. p. 421
> Miss Rayner appears on BBC television's Pebble Mill at One programme as an "agony auntie" and again she receives on average 250 letters a week from viewers, this time mainly from the middle classes.

It's just a snippet, but the volume does appear to be correctly dated,
although p. 421 is late in the year, so it might even spill into 1975.
Since the phrase appeared in quotation marks, I was wondering which of
the possibilities was more likely--that (a) Pebble Mill was the first
to use a character of "agony auntie", or that (b) the term was novel
enough to otherwise warrant the marks. This was partially answered by
another hit (it looks good for 1980--got page headers and

The spectator, Volume 245, Part 2‎ - Page 25
Business & Economics - 1980
I had expected to be annoyed by Claire Rayner's Casebook, the BBC's supposedly
pioneering foray into the world of the Agony Auntie.

So, this makes me inclined to accept proposition (a). Since my first
glimpse of /any/ BBC program did not come until 1981, I can't make a
definitive statement on this account. But, perhaps, someone has better
sources or recollections from the period and can figure this out.

I just thought I should mention this, in passing.


The American Dialect Society -

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