A post from Shady Characters

Miscellany № 90: 🌀🪐☆✻, or, the grawlix

This sentence:

I really #\*$@% want to visit a museum.

combines a truthful statement with what is known as a grawlix — a pile of non-alphanumeric characters intended to represent (and censor) a profanity.

I’ve been meaning to write about grawlixes for what is probably a few years now, but which, thanks to the ongoing coronavirus catastrophe, feels more like a few decades. The word (though not the typographical practice) was coined by the American newspaper cartoonist Mort Walker, whose bona fides derive from his creation, in 1950, of a comic strip called Beetle Bailey that he continued to produce until his death in 2018. (A 1954 spin-off, Hi and Lois, is carried on by his sons.)1 Walker introduced the grawlix and its relatives to the world at large in a 1975 book called Backstage at the Strips that, in turn, made reference to an earlier “presentation” concerning the grawlix:2,3

In a rather pedantic presentation I made to the members of the National Cartoonists Society called “Let’s Get Down to Grawlixes,” I wrote:

As the world begins to recognize that cartooning is an art form, I have become increasingly aware of the world’s lack of knowledge about our profession. They are exhibiting our work now in the Louvre, the Smithsonian, and the Metropolitan, and they are discussing cartoons in broad flowing terms such as “social significance,” “illuminated narrative,” and “primitive commentary,”* but not one of them knows the difference between such basic comicana as the “waftarom” and the “indotherm.”

Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to track down the “presentation” Walker quotes from. As far as I can tell, he may have published a version of it in the January 1969 issue of The Cartoonist, the magazine of The National Cartoonists Society. There are archives out there which have a copy, but work on the new book has prevented me from investigating further.4,5

Walker later codified his lexicon of comicana in, well, The Lexicon of Comicana, published in 1980.6 Here, he goes into detail. “Briffits” are little clouds that show where a fast-moving object (such as a fist) started its arc; “hites”, “dites”, or “vites” are lines showing the direction (horizontal, diagonal or vertical) in which that object moved. A fragrant object emits a “waftarom”; a hot one, “indotherms”. Someone with little starbursts called “squeans” orbiting their head is tipsy; a tornado-like “spurl” means they’re plastered.7 “Grawlix” was just one of a troupe of similar neologisms invented by Walker to describe a wide array of cartooning conventions.

But here’s the thing. A grawlix is not a collection of typographic characters — at least not the way that Walker defined it. In Lexicon, he writes:

A variety of acceptable curse words are at the cartoonist’s disposal. He may throw in a new one from time to time, but the real meat of the epithet must always contain plenty of jarns, quimps, nittles, and grawlixes[.]

In Walker’s jargon, a “jarn” is a spiral or similar mark (for example, 🌀); a “plewd” is a planet- or moon-shaped mark (, 🪐); a “nittle” is a star or star-like mark (, , etc.); and, finally, the grawlix of legend is an illegible scrawl intended to suggest but not actually communicate a written word. All of these come together, says Walker, in “maledicta”, or curse words, which can be made up of some or all of these components.6

In other words, the thing we call a grawlix is not a grawlix; it is a maledictum. To make matters worse, the more “grawlixes” we create with our keyboards the farther we travel from Walker’s original definition. We can find halfway-decent jarns, plewds and nittles in Unicode’s depths, but without grabbing a pen or a painting app, we cannot, by definition, create a grawlix.

What should we call them instead? The late Gwillim Law, who excavated a host of maledicta for his compendious web page “Grawlixes Past and Present”,8 stuck with “grawlix”. Over at UPenn’s indispensible Language Log blog, they’ve settled on Ben Zimmer’s portmanteau of “obscenicon”. I’m partial to “maledictum”, but, let’s face it, that is a hopelessly pretentious term for a cartoon swear word.

What say you? Answers on a postcard, or, alternatively, in the comments. And please, if you can reproduce them, show us some of your favourite grawlixes / obscenicons / maledicta!

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As someone who has only recently started reading Scott McCloud’s excellent Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, I would like to say that I, too, am bursting with lofty, borrowed thoughts on subjects such as the continuum of realism in comics. Do yourself a favour and order a copy today. 
There are too many relevant Language Log posts to list, but here, from oldest to newest, is a selection of the most apposite:

16 comments on “Miscellany № 90: 🌀🪐☆✻, or, the grawlix

  1. Comment posted by Carl on

    Clarification: Beetle Bailey still is being published, just not by a Walker.

  2. Comment posted by Mary Ann Barbara Atwood on

    Of course I’m par­tial to “mal­edictum”. What *%#@&)! wouldn’t see the sublime beauty of that noun?

  3. Comment posted by Jeremy Wickins on

    *#~&®¢§ well has to be “maledictum” for me, too! It’s too good a word to waste.

  4. Comment posted by Steven Minniear on

    With an increasing frequency use of terms such as “WTF” and “Sh!t” do we need maledicti (plural of maliditum?) anymore?

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Dave — thanks for the comment! That’s a nice suggestion, although perhaps too nice for a grawlix? Walker’s original examples of “obliterated epithets” have a bit more spikiness to them.

  5. Comment posted by Brian on

    As a youth I was excessively entertained by grawlix which obliquely exposed the word they were hiding via the punctuation shapes, specifically “$#!+” (such as in “This comment is bull$#!+”).

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      An excellent use of the neo-grawlix. Thanks for the comment!

  6. Comment posted by Steve Dunham on

    Steven Minniear asked above whether we need maledicti anymore. The examples Steven gave use omitted or substituted letters to represent the words; this is not far from the longtime advice of the Associated Press: if it’s necessary to include a profanity in a quotation, use hyphens instead of some of the letters. However, the strings of punctuation marks suggesting something unprintable are colorful and comical; substituted or omitted letters are merely profane without spelling the offending words in full.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Steve — thanks for the comment! All very true. Context is everything when deciding whether to use a “grawlix” or something a bit more sober.

  7. Comment posted by Robert Seddon on

    I’m reminded of heraldic jargon. If a cartoonist became armigerous it could lead to a hybrid blazon…

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