How Did @#$%&! Come to Represent Profanity?

Lexicon Valley
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Oct. 9 2013 4:38 PM

How Did @#$%&! Come to Represent Profanity?

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In a 1964 article for the National Cartoonist Society, Beetle Bailey creator Mort Walker coined the term grawlix, which, after a bit of evolution in its meaning, now refers to the string of typographical symbols that sometimes stands in for profanity. Anger is a fruitful comedic trope, after all, and so the quandary must have arisen for early cartoonists: How to depict that emotion without actually swearing, which is obviously inappropriate for the Funny Pages.

Enter Rudolph Dirks, a German immigrant who moved to America with his family in the 1880s. Dirks, a talented illustrator who began selling his work as a teenager, created "The Katzenjammer Kids" for the New York Journal when he was just 20 years old. The "Kids" in the comic strip, Hans and Fritz, are forever frustrating a regular cast of characters, including their mother, a school official known as der Inspector, a pirate named John Silver, and others. Dirks, it turns out, was as pioneering as he was talented, initiating the use of both speech balloons and, we think, symbolic swearing.

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Among the "Katzenjammer Kids" strips—collected online by Barnacle Press, a fantastic repository of early comic art—the earliest I could find with a grawlix is one from Dec. 14, 1902 featuring this final panel:

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An obscenicon in "The Katzenjammer Kids" in 1902.

Here we have the character Uncle Heinie "swearing" after the usual hijinks from the Kids, who have disrupted the hanging of a holly wreath. Notice that the nautically minded Uncle Heinie incorporates an anchor symbol in his cursing repertoire, which seems to have been something of a running joke for Dirks. What better graphic representation could there be for "swearing like a sailor"?

One of Dirks' cartooning contemporaries, Gene Carr, was exploring obscenicons (a term I coined and prefer to grawlix) around the same time. Among Carr's early work was "Lady Bountiful," recognized as the first comic strip with a female protagonist. Here is the "Lady Bountiful" strip that appeared in the Atlanta Constitution on Feb. 8, 1903 (again courtesy of Barnacle Press):

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An obscenicon in "Lady Bountiful" in 1903.

It's noteworthy that Carr's strips were published in the Pulitzer-owned New York World, while "The Katzenjammer Kids" appeared in the Hearst-owned New York Journal. Perhaps the escalating use of obscenicons was one manifestation of the famous battle between the two newspaper publishers. After all, we owe (in part) the expression "yellow journalism" to the fact that Pulitzer and Hearst fought over the rights to publish the original comic strip, Richard F. Outcault's "The Yellow Kid."

A version of this post originally appeared on Language Log.

Ben Zimmer is executive producer for Vocabulary.com and the Visual Thesaurus, and language columnist for the Wall Street Journal.

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