It all started with Louis C.K.
Specifically, an article in the New York Times Arts Beat blog* about how the prolific and hilarious stand up comedian Louis C.K. is going to stream his next stand up special on his website instead of going to HBO, Comedy Central or Showtime.
I posted this excerpt over at True Blue LA, a blog about the Los Angeles Dodgers**:
Louis C. K., the star and creator of the FX series “Louie,” said in an interview with Mr. O’Brien that his upcoming concerts at the Beacon Theater in Manhattan on Nov. 10 would be recorded and then posted in an edited version on his Web site, louisck.net, on Dec. 10 where it can be viewed for a cost of $5.
Asked in a phone interview on Friday morning why he was not bringing the special to a traditional cable television network, Louis C. K. said: “To me, I flip the question over: Why should I go through a cable network when I can just give it directly to the people who want to see it? It’s so much easier, and it’s an interesting experiment.”
Notice something? Conan O’Brien is “Mr. O’Brien,” while Louis C.K. goes by his full name. And an investigation is born!
OK, his real name is the unspellable Louis Szekely. It is pretty obvious why he would rather go by Louis C.K. than Louis Szekely. So why wouldn’t they go with “Mr. C.K.?”
Besides the fact that it would look ridiculous, they don’t do that for stage names. For example, here is how The Times opened a story about the rapper known as Ol’ Dirty Bastard, but named Russell Jones:
”I’m like a butterfly on your windowpane,” said Russell Jones, the rapper known as O. D .B., when he sauntered onstage during the Wu Tang Clan’s concert on Tuesday at Hammerstein Ballroom. It’s doubtful that O. D. B. knows the minutiae of rock history, but his phrase evoked an earlier incident involving pop stars who challenged the law.
So why no “Mr. Szekely” or “Mr. Jones” in these stories? Well, here is an excerpt of the New York Times Style Guide relating to courtesy titles:
Omit a courtesy title with a coined or fanciful stage name to avoid appearing overliteral. Meat Loaf and Little Richard, for example, keep their full names, without title, in all references.
Oh yes, Meat Loaf. Infamously, and it turns out apocryphally, Meat Loaf was referred to as “Mr. Loaf” in The Times. David Vescey wrote about it at ESPN’s short-lived ESPN3 back in 2004:
The New York Times is one of the few remaining publications to use honorifics as standard procedure, using a title for everybody except athletes, uber-famous artists and performers and infamous felons. That the Times once referred to a certain rotund pop singer as “Mr. Loaf” is, unfortunately, just urban legend. Though one NYT headline did suggest that Meat Loaf be called Mr. Loaf, it did so jokingly.
Vescey is now a copy editor at the New York Times according to Patrick LaForge (Editor of New Presentation and a great follow on Twitter). LaForge, in fact, helped greatly with the research for this post.
Sorry, “Mr. Loaf” never happened except in jest. This review of “Meat Loaf on Broadway” back in 1993 in The Times shows that he is referred to as “Meat Loaf” throughout the review.
There are, however, some exceptions to the rules. As with anything.
More from The Times style guide:
Omit courtesy titles with most names in sports articles (even on the front page), though titles are sometimes appropriate for names occurring in purely political, civic or business roles: Ms. Barany threw out the first ball. In other articles, omit a courtesy title for a sports figure mentioned in an athletic role, but use the title when the name appears in other connections. In an athlete’s obituary, omit the title in passages covering the sport, but use the title in those passages recounting other phases of the subject’s life — a later business career, for example. Copy about chess or bridge should follow the sports style.
It goes on to say that courtesy titles are not used in The Times Magazine and Book Review either.
Above it mentions obituaries. In O.D.B.’s obituary,*** The Times refers to him as “Mr. Jones.”
So death takes away all stage names.
Now what about “coined or fanciful” names that the person has legally changed?
One example is Chad Ochocinco, born Chad Johnson. You have to find a non-sports story (as outlined above) to test it out. Here is one from The Times’ Bits blog****:
One of RockLive’s first big sports clients was Chad Ochocinco, the Cincinnati Bengals football player. “Chad wanted us to do an entire social media campaign for him, so we helped get him set up on Twitter and Facebook,” said John Shadhidi, RockLive’s chief executive. “We quickly realized that the mobile space was perfect for Chad, so we built an iPhone application and eventually integrated a game into it too.”
After the success of Mr. Ochocinco’s mobile app, RockLive signed a deal with Mike Tyson, the former heavyweight boxing champion, to build an iPhone game along with a social media platform that would allow Mr. Tyson to communicate with his fans.
A ha! Why does Ochocinco get the courtesy title? I assume it is because once you change your name then it is no longer a stage name and instead your real name.
Therefore, they give you the normal courtesy title treatment.
Two examples from music are Elvis Costello and Elton John.
In a more tragic example, this blog post about an ex-companion of former NBA star World B. Free (born Lloyd Bernard Free) who was murdered, the article refers to him as “Mr. Free” on second reference.
Oh, and one more omission:
Omit courtesy titles with surnames of historic or pre-eminent figures no longer living: Curie; Hitler; Lenin; Napoleon; Newton; Woolf.
So historical figures no longer need the courtesy title, right? Well… it depends.
The time period on when the courtesy titles disappears varies greatly. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was assassinated in 1968, was referred to as “Dr. King” just last month when writing about the dedication of the memorial dedicated to the Civil Rights leader.
This most got some media attention after the death of Osama bin Laden. From a piece by The Explainer in Slate:
According to the Times, dropping the terrorist’s title was a last-minute decision of minor importance, made just before going to press. The paper’s print edition was inconsistent on the matter: News stories mentioned “Mr. bin Laden” while the obituary referred to “bin Laden.” But the decision does seem to imply some form of moral judgment. Bin Laden is certainly a historical figure—defined as someone who will be talked about for decades—so he would have gotten the one-name treatment at some point either way. But why now? If George H.W. Bush died tomorrow, he would undoubtedly be referred to as “Mr. Bush.” Idi Amin was sent off as “Mr. Amin,” and Joseph Stalin was “Mr. Stalin.” The Times' decision to forgo any transition period and jump straight to “bin Laden” indicates it had no fears about offending readers by shortening his name.
As such, Bin Laden joins a select crew of name-shortened Times evil-doers. Adolf Hitler was called “Hitler” even while still alive. The same went for fellow Nazis like Erwin Rommel. Pol Pot went without a courtesy title in his 1998 obituary.
No courtesy for dead terrorists, dictators or fascists — along with other historical figures after a certain period of time. Depending.
But Meat Loaf, it should be noted, will never be Mr. Loaf in The Times. Unless it is a joke.
Once again, thanks to LaForge (or should I say Mr. LaForge?) for helping out on Twitter.
* “The Culture At Large” is the blog’s broad tagline.
** “A place for Dodger fans to congregate without spending $15 on parking.”*** You ask, “Why are you always using O.D.B. as an example, to which I counter, why not always use O.D.B. as an example whenever possible?
**** “Business. Innovation. Technology. Society.”