Agony Aunt: Meaning, History, and More

Maria Pengue
By Maria Pengue

If you’ve ever been in a situation where you don’t know who to talk to, an agony aunt might just be what you need. Agony aunts are columnists who offer advice on various issues ranging from relationships to work-related problems.

Though their advice may not always be what you want to hear, it can often be helpful. But how influential are these figures in today’s landscape? Read on to find out.

What Is an Agony Aunt?

When thinking about the British “agony aunt” or the American “advice columnist,” the meaning stays the same.

Both terms relate to a person, usually a woman, who gives advice to people who are experiencing personal problems. These figures often work for newspapers or magazines and typically write under a pseudonym.

Even though this job is most popular among women, the agony aunt has its own male version, known as the “agony uncle.”

History of Agony Aunt: Past vs. Present

Agony aunts as we know them today are thought to have originated in the late 17th century. According to a 2009 Guardian article, the history of agony aunts started when a 32-year-old bookseller, John Dunton, was having an affair and looked for advice. However, he didn’t want to disclose his name to the public due to his image.

So, Dunton decided to launch the Athenian Gazette and hire writers of both sexes to advise people. In 1704, the infamous Daniel Defoe became the first “agony uncle.”

In the 1740s, the female counterpart, Eliza Haywood, became the icon of female columnists and readers. She was a well-known romantic novelist and editor of the Female Spectator.

With the rise of technology, today’s agony aunts are not only found in newspapers and magazines but can also reach millions of people online.

What Is the Purpose of an Agony Aunt?

Generally, agony aunt columns provide guidance and support to readers struggling with personal issues. In many cases, the columnist went through similar experiences herself and can offer first-hand advice.

Even if the columnist has not personally experienced the same problem, she can still provide helpful insight and suggestions based on her knowledge and life experience. In either case, the goal is to help the reader find a way to cope with or solve their problem.

Benefits of Agony Aunt

There are many benefits to seeking out the advice of agony aunts. First, it can be helpful to talk to someone outside of your personal situation. This can provide a new perspective on your problem and may help you see things in a different light.

Additionally, agony aunts are often experienced in the areas of relationships, family, and work, and they can offer both practical and sympathetic advice. Last but not least, simply knowing that someone is there to listen and offer support can be a great source of comfort during difficult times.

Topics of Agony Aunt

As mentioned earlier, a typical agony aunt newspaper column covers a wide range of topics, including relationships, family, work, and life in general.

However, some agony aunts may specialize in certain areas, such as parenting or marriage. Other agony aunts may offer advice on more light-hearted topics, such as fashion or beauty.

Our Takeaway

Although agony aunts have been around for centuries, they’re still an important part of the newspaper industry and society as a whole. They provide valuable advice that can help people in their time of need.

While the form may have changed over time, the function remains the same. If you’re looking for some sage counsel or just a friendly ear to bend, an agony aunt is always there for you.

Agony Aunt: FAQ

Who was the first agony aunt?

Delariver Manley was believed to be the first agony aunt and the first woman editor in the UK. In 1709, she started a gossip magazine known as the Female Tatler, which included a column dedicated to giving advice to readers.

Who was the first agony aunt in the US?

In the US, Dorothy Dix was the first advice columnist who started writing an advice column in the New York Evening Journal in 1896. Her column, “Dix’s Plain Facts for Old and Young Alike,” proved to be hugely popular, and she went on to write for a number of other newspapers. One of the most famous agony aunts, Dix championed the causes of women and children, and her column offered a rare opportunity for readers to talk openly about sensitive topics such as sexuality, marriage, and mental health.

Why do people read advice columns?

Even though there are now many other sources of advice available, advice columns remain popular. Why do people continue to read them? For one thing, advice columns offer the opportunity to get a third-party perspective on a problem. Sometimes it can be difficult to see our problems clearly, but an outsider can provide valuable insights. In addition, readers can find comfort in knowing they are not alone in their struggles. Reading about other people’s problems and how they coped with them can be helpful.

What do Americans call an agony aunt?

The term “agony aunt” is most commonly used in the UK, where the column originated. In the US, the equivalent term is “advice columnist.” The column usually takes the form of a letter from a reader, followed by the advice columnist’s response. The readers’ problems can be heartfelt or humorous, often involving relationships, work, family, or self-esteem. While some agony aunts dispense practical advice, others focus on offering emotional support.