Etymology Linguistics Usage

What do you call a %&*&##@?

Q: Is there a term for those strings of symbols, like %&*&##@, used in comic books to represent obscenities?

A: Not only is there a term for those thingies, there are two terms: “grawlix,” coined 47 years ago by the cartoonist Mort Walker, and “obscenicon,” introduced in 2006 by the linguist and lexicographer Ben Zimmer.

We prefer “grawlix.” It’s far more popular (6,480 vs. 96 hits on Google when we checked), though “obscenicon” is arguably more precise.

In “Let’s Get Down to Grawlixes,” a 1964 article for the National Cartoonists Society,  Walker writes that cartoonists have a variety of acceptable curse words, “but the real meat of the epithet must always contain plenty of jarns, quimps, nittles, and grawlixes.”

In The Lexicon of Comicana, Walker’s humorous 1980 book about the conventions used in cartooning, he shows “jarns” as spirals, “quimps” as astronomical characters, “nittles” as stars, and “grawlixes” as scribbles.

(Walker’s comic strips include Beetle Bailey and Hi and Lois.)

Despite its scribbled origins, “grawlix” generally seems to be used now for those strings of symbols in comic books, at least that’s the impression we have from checking out a few dozen Google results.

As for “obscenicon,” Zimmer introduced the term in a Language Log posting in which he describes a New Yorker cartoon as “meta-commentary on cursing characters (let’s call ’em obscenicons).”

The linguists Arnold Zwicky and Gwillim Law, among others, later commented on the Language Log about the merits of the two terms.

Zwicky, citing the squiggly origins of “grawlix,” leaned toward “obscenicon” as more precise (it’s a blend of “obscene” and “icon”). Law,  a “grawlix” supporter, noted its early origins and popularity.

If you’d like to read more, Law has written an interesting article, “Grawlixes Past and Present,” with illustrations of various typographical obscenities in comics over the years (from a 1909 Katzenjammer Kids to a 2010 Jump Start strip).

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