A Word For That

Typeface: Chronicle Deck Bold Italic

Is that the sound of a designer waiting for Adobe Updater to complete? No, just a brief response to a question on Docs Populi, via Coudal Partners:

“What does one call the use of random non-alphabet characters to indicate cursing? It’s a universally understood device, and is applied in both graphic and textual settings. It is such a commonly accepted staple that I assumed it must already be defined and described — but apparently it’s not.”

But it is! The term is grawlix, and it looks to have been coined by Beetle Bailey cartoonist Mort Walker around 1964. Though it’s 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 I’d love to see used more.” As the author of the grawlixy compendium The F-Word, Sheidlower’s perspective is unique — and unassailable, if you’re wise, since he and his cronies have the power to immortalize naysayers as expletives themselves. (Don’t laugh: such was the fate of philistine Thomas Bowdler, miser Charles Boycott, and jingoist Nicolas Chauvin, to say nothing of famous typeface designer James W. Scumbag.)

Until its OED entry is solemnized, we’ll have to settle for this definition on Wiktionary: “grawlix, n. A string of typographical symbols used (especially in comic strips) to represent an obscenity or swear word.” I don’t think I’ll ever look at a character set quite the same way again. —JH


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