September 27, 2019

Words of the Month - Grawlixes and Other Maledicta

        September 24 was National Punctuation Day, in honor of which this month’s word refers to a very strange and particular sort of quasi-punctuation.  A grawlix is the series of graphical symbols used to represent swearing, as in “What the #@#% is a grawlix?”  The word was coined in 1964 by Mort Walker, the creator of the Beetle Bailey and Hi and Lois comic strips,  but he did not invent the use of symbols to bleep out cussing.  That innovation can be credited to Rudolph Dirks who created The Katzenjammer Kids, and his earliest use of the grawlix may be this strip in 1902.  When you think about it, this is really very clever, because it allows the cartoonist to depict extreme emotions, a staple of comedy, without actually using any “inappropriate” language.  Comics are both visual art and written language, and the grawlix blends the two to provide a solution in both realms.
        The question of swearing is an interesting linguistic topic in itself, and people have spent much ink and many pixels discussing what words are considered inappropriate, in what situations, why people use them anyway, and whether or not it is commendable to avoid them or to pile in as many as vocally possible.  It seems to be a universal that societies pick certain words to simultaneously forbid and embrace.  I myself generally do not use any “swear words” unless I’m quoting someone who does, because I feel that the usual cussing indicates a certain lack of creativity and linguistic precision, not to mention causing pointless offense, and I’m nothing if not a pedantic prude.  Nevertheless, I myself found occasion to embrace the grawlix in my book The Bad Advice of Grandma Hasenfuss.  Middle school student
Danny reports to his grandmother the misadventures of his days, and a running joke is the swearing proclivities of one fellow student and the school principal.  But a seventh grader clearly won’t type such language in emails to his grandmother, so he uses grawlixes to report the offending dialogue.  On a meta level, of course, it allows me as the author to keep things clean for the middle grade audience, as well.  As Grandma Hasenfuss says, “I appreciate your circumspection in the matter of rude language.  Should you ever need to report on such dialogue, you may respect my old-fashioned morals by using %$# and *@& and so on.  I never say anything else myself, no matter how extreme the provocation.”  So thank you to Dirks for inventing this graphic solution that allows cartoonists and me to have our cake and eat it, too.
        Walker actually first used the word grawlix to indicate scrawly scribbles, along with jarns, which were spirals, and nittles, which were star and asterisk shapes.  The entire category of cartoon cussing he called maledicta.  Now, however, jarn and nittle are mere footnotes, while grawlix is the word that’s become more popular.  Its meaning has also shifted.  In comics all sorts of symbol can be used to indicate swearing, and they can all be called grawlixes generally, but the word’s most specific referent is the symbols generally available for typing on a keyboard: @#$%&*!
        Grawlix is not the only contender for its definition, however.  Language columnist Ben Zimmer coined obscenicon, which has also proven popular, and of course one can always simply talk about bleeps.  Indeed, if you ever need to pronounce a grawlix (as, for example, while reading The Bad Advice of Grandma Hasenfuss aloud), strings of symbols seem to be most commonly pronounced “bleep bleep bleepity bleep,” and sometimes “blankety-blank,” or variations thereof.

[Pictures: detail from “How Uncle Heinie Puts up a Holly Wreath” from The Katzenjammer Kids by Rudolph Dirks, 1902 (Image from Barnacle Press).]