What the #@$%*!

I’VE been feeling full of profanities lately. So full that if my thoughts were photographed – heaven forbid – I guarantee they’d look like this: #@$%*!

It’s not nice, I know, but if you had to put up with the haphazardness of my internet connection – up and running beautifully one minute and dead as a dodo the next – and had lots of research to do to boot, you probably wouldn’t be in a good mood, either.

Still, at least it set me to thinking about #@$%*! There’s even a name for it. It’s called a grawlix.

If you were lucky enough to have comics as a kid (they were totally banned in my house so I had to read smuggled copies by torchlight in a sneaky under-the-covers kind of way), you’ll probably remember seeing it quite often.

It was invented especially for comics to depict cursing, and named by a comic book artist – Mort Walker (whose most famous creations were Beetle Bailey, and Hi and Lois) – for a 1964 article called Let’s Get Down to Grawlixes.

Swearing of any kind poses problems in print. While some readers don’t mind, others are outraged. Newspapers – generally all-age publications – tread a fine line.

The Dispatch’s style guide – the newspaper for which I write this column – says we should use the first letter followed by asterisks rather than spelling the naughty word out in full. If grawlixes were the rule, though, readers wouldn’t have to work out the difference between, for example, b**** and b*******, would they? They could just use their own imaginations ….

In England, it seems the more liberal the newspaper, the more liberal the language, leading one blog to ask: “Are there too many f****s in the Guardian?” (And since the blog was one of its own, that newspaper spelt the swear word out in full!)

Grawlixes weren’t the only thing old Mort came up with for the comics – he created words for all the graphic symbols splattered generously across their pages. In his 1980 Lexicon of Comicana, he coined  “briffits” for the clouds of dust indicating a character left in a rush; “solrads” for lines that radiate from the sun or from light bulbs to indicate luminosity; “agitrons”, the wiggly lines around a character that indicate shaking, and a whole slew more.

“It started out as a joke for the National Cartoonists Society magazine,” he says, in Mort Walker’s Private Scrapbook. “I spoofed the tricks cartoonists use, like dust clouds when characters are running or lightbulbs over their heads when they get an idea.”

When his son suggested he expand on it, “I created pseudo-scientific names for each cartoon cliché, like the sweat marks cartoon characters radiate. I called them ‘plewds’ after the god of rain, ‘Joe Pluvius’.”

Mort was later shocked to see the book displayed not in the humour section of his local bookstore, as he expected, but on a shelf labelled “Art Instruction”.

“I gave up,” he explained, with a shrug – or should that be an “agitron”? – and that’s just how he sold it. – Stevie Godson

(A version of this column first appeared in the Daily Dispatch)



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This entry was posted by stevieg on Sunday, April 22nd, 2012 at 8:25 pm and is filed under General . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


  1. I totally have the mouth of a sailor, or a trucker, or whatever the #*?%@ the saying is. But, I just heard that study results show that people who swear have less anxiety. Now, I don’t know who these “study people” are, but they sound very smart. 🙂

  2. Grawlix – I LOVE it! Now instead of typing, say, “My *#&@ internet wouldn’t work this morning” I can type, “My (insert grawlix here) internet wouldn’t start up this morning”. And, yes, I’m totally going to do that with some of my fellow word nerd friends. If they don’t know the word, they can look it up. 😀

  3. Tuere Morton says:

    Lol! Losing internet connection is almost as bad as losing documents you haven’t back up after your computer crashes…almost. As far as profanity goes, I agree that the crankiness goes up a few thousand notches when you can’t get on the information superhighway. No bueno 🙂

    • stevieg says:

      No bueno, indeed, Tuere! Fortunately, I have low blood pressure so that going up several notches was a good thing.

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