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In Jane Austen's Emma, when Emma and Mr. Knightley are discussing first names, this exchange happens:

'And cannot you call me "George" now?'
'Impossible!—I never can call you any thing but "Mr Knightley." I will not promise even to equal the elegant terseness of Mrs. Elton, by calling you Mr K.—But I will promise,' she added presently, laughing and blushing—'I will promise to call you once by your Christian name. I do not say when, but perhaps you may guess where;—in the building in which N. takes M. for better, for worse.'
Emma, chapter 53

What does "N. takes M." mean? At first I assumed that it was an abbreviation of the names of a couple getting married, given that it followed the mention of "Mr. K" and allusion to "Mr. E", but none of the other couples' names matched up. Since it's evidently not that, it must stand for something else. I assume it's when they're getting married, but I'm not clear on what "N." and "M." mean.

What do these stand for? What's being referred to here?

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This is fairly obscure, but (like any good riddle) obvious when you have the right information to see the answer.

Have a look at The Form of Solemnization of Matrimony from the Church of England's Book of Common Prayer: essentially, the stuff that a priest would say during an Anglican wedding ceremony.

I publish the Banns of Marriage between M. of - and N. of -. [...]

I N. take thee N. to my wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part, according to God's holy ordinance; and thereto I plight thee my troth.

I N. take thee N. to my wedded husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love, cherish, and to obey, till death us do part, according to God's holy ordinance; and thereto I give thee my troth.

In this pretty official document, "M." and "N." are used as placeholders to represent the names that the priest should read out at the beginning of the ceremony. Later on, when the couple are taking their vows, it's only "N." that's used, but other versions of the Book of Common Prayer (such as this one from c. 1800-1820 - thanks @GarethRees) consistently use "N." for the bride and "M." for the groom. Note the appearance of the phrase "for better, for worse", so that in the versions which consistently differentiate between "N." and "M.", we literally have the line "I N. take thee M. [...] for better for worse", almost exactly the same as in your quoted passage. This confirms that we've solved the riddle correctly and found what's being referred to.

So yes, it is "an abbreviation of the names of a couple getting married", as you guessed. But not a specific couple: rather, "N." and "M." are essentially the "John and Jane Doe" of Church of England documentation.

Thanks to this site for pointing me to the correct answer. It also contains further information about the usage or non-usage of "M." in different editions:

In the earlier versions of the prayerbook, this "N." occurred wherever either the man's name or the woman's name was to be spoken as part of the wedding ceremony. In most later editions of the prayerbook, in order to prevent any possible confusion as to where the man's name was to be spoken, and where the woman's name, two different letters have been used -- "M." was introduced to mark places where the man's name should be said, while "N." was left to mark places where the woman's name should be said. The differentiation was probably done in this way merely because the man's name is usually said before the woman's name in the ceremony, and "M." comes before "N." in the alphabet; as far as I'm aware, there is no deeper significance to the particular choice of letters for the man's and woman's names, and the letter "M." doesn't seem to abbreviate anything (in the way that "N." can be said to abbreviate nomen). (One ingenious suggestion, that "M." and "N." were intended to stand for Latin maritus "husband" and nupta "bride", must remain rather doubtful.)

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    In the version of the Book of Common Prayer in the late 18th century, the phrasing of the bride's vow was "I N. take thee M." exactly as indicated in the quote from Emma. See for example this edition, c. 1800 Commented Sep 1, 2023 at 15:51
  • Thanks @GarethRees, I've added that info. I kept the last quote as well, although it's unconfirmed by more authoritative sources and doesn't say exactly what's meant by "earlier" and "later", such as when the change came about.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Sep 2, 2023 at 5:35
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    You can check for yourself by looking at different editions through time. I did a quick check and found that M. appears for the first time in editions from the 1760s. Commented Sep 2, 2023 at 10:56
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    As to that Latin suggestion, weren't those priests and ministers steeped in both Latin and Greek (if not Hebrew) at that time - or maybe as a better analogy immersion baptised at an early age in those liturgical languages?
    – civitas
    Commented Sep 2, 2023 at 23:01
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    @civitas They were, but that doesn't make the suggestion plausible. In the Latin rite the priest asks, "N. vis accipere N. hic praesentem?" with N. standing for both names. In this case N. must stand for nomen. The letter M. was introduced in some editions of the Book of Common Prayer in the 18th century, long after the rite had been translated into English. The letters M. and N. also stand for names in the Catechism ("Question What is your name? Answer N. or M.") where maritus and nupta would make no sense. Commented Sep 3, 2023 at 9:16

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