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Names for the unspeakable

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April July 20, 2008 07:30 PM

It could be scary, an e-mail from your editor with the subject line %&#$&$!!!. Luckily, Iím not an alarmist; I figured this was a mention, not a use, of the symbols for an unprintable expostulation, and so it was: The e-mail contained a link to a comment on an old name for such cartoon swearing:

The term is grawlix, and it looks to have been coined by Beetle Bailey cartoonist Mort Walker around 1964. Though itís yet to gain admission to the Oxford English Dictionary, OED Editor-at-Large Jesse Sheidlower describes it as "undeniably useful, certainly a word, and one that Iíd love to see used more."

Mort Walker has been in the news lately -- the Wall Street Journal had a page one story last week on his search for a home for his valuable cartoon collection. And Nancy Friedman, at her Fritinancy blog, made another Walker coinage word of the week: Emanata, the squiggles that emanate from a character or object to reveal its state of being (worried, hot, in motion).

Some of Walkerís coinages are wonderful -- solrads for the radiating lines that show a bulb (or the sun) is shedding light, wafteron and indotherm for the wavy lines suggesting scent or heat. But grawlixes, squeans and plewds seem more random (no surprise, since the coinages began as a joke).

Anyway, for the swear-word word, Iím partial to Ben Zimmerís obscenicon, first seen on Language Log a couple of years ago.

Of course, a nitpicker might object that some obscenicons are really profanicons or scaticons, or, in cases like Jesse Jacksonís "cut his #$&% off," merely crudicons. And if you can tell one from the other with confidence, thereís nothing to stop you adopting those terms. Theyíre all more transparent, to my mind, than grawlix, which looks like a typo for gravlax, or maybe a species of super-aggressive extraterrestrial lice.

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Rules and realities of English usage from Boston Globe Ideas columnist Jan Freeman.
Jan Freeman, a former Boston Globe editor, has been writing the weekly column ďThe WordĒ since 1997. E-mail her at

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