Another meta-obscenicon strip

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Today's Zits:

Some earlier LL posts on cartoon cussing:

You taught me language, and my profit on’t / Is, I know how to curse”, 7/17/2005
"Call me… unpronounceable", 9/6/2005
"Beetle Bailey goes positively meta", 6/22/2006
"More @!%!**#~@#!! wisdom from Beetle Bailey", 6/23/2006
"Everybody's going meta", 6/23/2006
"Obscenicons in the workplace", 8/24/2006
"2500 words for cursing the weather", 1/18/2007
"Reading the ampersand comics!", 3/21/2008
"Spiral thingy lightning bolt!", 3/20/2008
"A little more on obscenicons", 3/23/2008
"Seven words you can't say in a cartoon", 7/4/08
"The FCC, Fox News, and the modest New York Times", 11/2/2008
"Comic profanity", 4/26/2009.
"Pound sign question mark star exclamation point", 7/17/2010
"Obsenicons a century ago", 7/17/2010
"More on the early days of obscenicons", 7/24/2010

Despite the century-long ubiquity of obscenicons in the comics, and the recent popularity of Kevin Fowler's song, I haven't yet heard anybody in real life cussing in vocalized obscenicons. In contrast, "bleep" seems to be pretty common.

I suspect that this is because remembering the names of obscenicons is too hard.


  1. John said,

    May 11, 2011 @ 8:26 am

    How about the rise of other TV euphemisms, like "frak" from Battlestar Galactica?

  2. Terminologia etc. » » Tradurre obscenicon? #$*%@!! said,

    May 11, 2011 @ 8:47 am

    […] maggio 2011 – Un elenco di interventi di Language Log sull’argomento e striscia di Zits che l’ha […]

  3. Martin J Ball said,

    May 11, 2011 @ 9:11 am

    You can't beat "feck" from Father Ted …

  4. Peter said,

    May 11, 2011 @ 9:21 am

    “Smeg” from Red Dwarf saw a lot of currency in the UK in the ’90s.

    But we do seem to be drifting mildly off-topic!

  5. Boris said,

    May 11, 2011 @ 9:42 am

    The key is to shorten them for ease of use. Bang! Star! Bone! At!

    Actually, I like bang. It already has a sexual meaning and it sounds like dang, which makes it an all-purpose expletive.

  6. Bob Lieblich said,

    May 11, 2011 @ 9:47 am

    "Fug" from "The Naked and the Dead." And, of course f@ck for those avoiding obscenity filters. Come to think of it, are f@ck and just plain @ synonyms?

  7. Zythophile said,

    May 11, 2011 @ 9:53 am

    Martin J Ball – "feck" was common in Hibernian English long before Father Ted. My middle-class 85-year-old Dublin mother-in-law uses it …

  8. kktkkr said,

    May 11, 2011 @ 10:02 am

    If you count those, then perhaps "WTF" should be included, as well as all the spellings of cuss words. But I haven't seen obscenicons spelt out at all. Possibly because they are "random" and you wouldn't find them in a dictionary of any sort, and possibly because spelling one out would be a sort of double substitution. And then, it's not like they roll off the tongue.
    Things get even more funny when people try to render obscenicons into some kind of unintelligible sound!

  9. Nathan said,

    May 11, 2011 @ 10:22 am

    Aitch ee double hockey sticks!

  10. Eric S said,

    May 11, 2011 @ 10:41 am

    @Martin J Ball,

    "Feck" has been around in Hiberno English for quite a while. I understand it can function as either a milder form of "fuck", or something along the lines of 'steal', or something along the lines of 'toss' or 'throw'.

    E.g. "I just went into the orchard and fecked some apples".


  11. Josh Millard said,

    May 11, 2011 @ 11:00 am

    How about the rise of other TV euphemisms, like "frak" from Battlestar Galactica?

    I think more interesting, and more analogous to the Zits strip, is whether and where writers have gone as far as having characters literally spell out fake curses or such (e.g. talking in front of the kid, "what the eff arr ay kay, Galen…").

  12. Ed said,

    May 11, 2011 @ 11:34 am

    i think "meta-grawlix" has a much nicer ring to it.

  13. Boris said,

    May 11, 2011 @ 12:47 pm

    I think the cursing symbols are usually random, but I remember a magazine ad use "Oh $#!+". It was in the context of the short period of time when Apple allowed sale of Macintosh clones by third parties. Then it changed its mind, so the advertiser in question, a clone maker, was forced to sell all its machines below cost.

  14. Aelfric said,

    May 11, 2011 @ 1:17 pm

    Are fish bones a common feature of such 'obscenicons?' I must confess, I was a bit taken aback to see them there!

  15. Kylopod said,

    May 11, 2011 @ 1:59 pm

    "Effing" has become a pretty common euphemism. It even made its way into one of the Harry Potter books, which generally avoid profanity (and have little to no sexual content).

    Nobody in real life is going to swear in vocalized obscenicons, for two simple reasons: (1) There's no standard order for the symbols (2) Even if there were, speaking them aloud would be awkward and unwieldy.

  16. bric said,

    May 11, 2011 @ 2:09 pm

    In his novel Myron 'to conform with community standards' Gore Vidal made the following substitutions:
    blackmun: ass
    burger: fuck
    father hills: tits
    keating: shit
    powells: balls
    rehnquist: cock
    whizzer white: cunt
    Some of the names celebrate the Supreme Court Justices who voted for the decision in Miller v. California, some were public figures who liked to be associated with smut

  17. Erik Zyman Carrasco said,

    May 11, 2011 @ 3:20 pm

    It's kind of interesting that, as pointed out by Nathan, we say H–E–double hockey sticks. At least on the face of it, that would seem to mean multiple hockey sticks each of which is double in some way, but that's obviously not what it means, since we're dealing with exactly two "hockey sticks."

    And, at least for me,† H–E–double hockey sticks is a frozen idiom, so any attempt to eliminate the "redundancy" results in degradation:

    (1a) What the H–E–double hockey sticks are you doing?
    (1b) *What the H–E–hockey sticks are you doing?
    (1c) *What the H–E–double hockey stick are you doing?
    †Even though I've never used it and very well may never do so.

  18. Matt said,

    May 11, 2011 @ 4:08 pm

    Here's a new chess cartoon by José Diaz on the ongoing FIDE candidates matches. Each player's curse is represented by a single obscenicon…some of which look like chess pieces to me.

  19. Paolo said,

    May 11, 2011 @ 4:27 pm

    An entertaining piece which includes the line feckity, feckity, feckity, feckity, feck, feck, feck:

  20. Will said,

    May 11, 2011 @ 4:31 pm

    @Erik Zyman Carrasco said

    "we say H–E–double hockey sticks. At least on the face of it, that would seem to mean multiple hockey sticks each of which is double in some way"

    We also say (of dice) double sixes, meaning exactly two sixes.

    In any case, it seems to me the 's' here doesn't really mark an additional layer of plurality so much as it's merely a required morpheme — the noun phrase has to have plural number in this context. The phrases "double six" and "double hockey stick" both sound ungrammatical to me.

  21. Erik Zyman Carrasco said,

    May 11, 2011 @ 4:52 pm

    @ Will:

    "…the 's' here doesn't really mark an additional layer of plurality so much as it's merely a required morpheme — the noun phrase has to have plural number in this context."

    Oh, I definitely agree, I was just pointing out that that's weird. I wonder if a principled explanation exists—especially given that we now have more than one example of the same phenomenon—or if it's just an irreducible quirk.

    I'm not too familiar with dice games. You ruled out #double six (a judgment that intuitively makes sense to me), but I'm curious: would it be possible to say Sixes. if you got two sixes, or does it have to be Double sixes. ?

  22. Paul Terry Hunt said,

    May 11, 2011 @ 5:56 pm

    @ Will

    The normality of "double sixes" is contrary to my experience. It's a while since I played games using dice very often, but my recollection is that printed game instructions and players' conversation usually referred to throwing "a double six." I'm British, so is this one more, hitherto unexamined, trans-Atlantic divergence, or does even contemporary UK usage differ from that in my distant youth?

  23. maidhc said,

    May 11, 2011 @ 7:52 pm

    The fish skeleton may be a nod to fellow cartoonist Bob Weber Jr., who often features one in Slylock Fox. A skull and crossbones is more common in cartoon swearing. The planet Saturn is another popular one.

  24. Eric said,

    May 11, 2011 @ 9:44 pm

    As soon as I opened up the comix section this morning, I knew I'd be seeing this one on Language Log…

  25. Ken Brown said,

    May 11, 2011 @ 10:26 pm

    Google seems to prefer "double six" to "double sixes" by about 15 to 1

  26. rwmg said,

    May 12, 2011 @ 1:48 am

    @Will, if you say "double sixes" for a dice throw, would you say "double six" or "double sixes" when reading, eg, phone numbers aloud?

  27. Svipur said,

    May 12, 2011 @ 2:31 am

    I'm starting to suspect it might be a common trick among musicians – spelling everything out so as to obfuscate things. The swearing lad instantly reminded me of Jackson:

  28. Rubrick said,

    May 12, 2011 @ 3:25 am

    I think "fishbones!" by itself would make a pretty good expletive.

  29. Eric said,

    May 12, 2011 @ 5:18 am

    @Rubrick #whitepeoplesayings

  30. Erik Zyman Carrasco said,

    May 12, 2011 @ 7:37 am

    @ rwmg: I'd say double six rather than double sixes in a phone number, though actually I'd just say six-six.

    Which reminds me of the (tangential) fact that, in my experience, it's much more common to use two-digit numbers in reading phone numbers aloud in Mexican Spanish than in American English (e.g., sesenta y seis ‘sixty-six’).

  31. Will said,

    May 12, 2011 @ 1:51 pm

    I play backgammon a lot, and me and everyone I've ever played with says "double sixes" (I'm in the US). I've never heard anyone say "double six". I'm starting to think this might be specific to dice, or even specific to backgammon though, based on the google results. I'm not sure why "double six" is 15 times more common in google than "double sixes", but it does seem from looking through the top results that "double six" seems to be very common in dominos (referring to a particular domino tile) where "double sixes" seems to be very common in backgammon (referring to a particular dice roll). In any case, it seems that "double sixes" is definitely attested, though the frequency vs "double six" is unclear (those google results have a lot of red herrings).

    For a phone number, I would (like Erik) be most likely to say "six-six", but if pressed to use one of the forms above, I'd say "double six", not "double sixes".

    So it seems that the 's' morpheme isn't after all required, but can be included optionally without changing the meaning.

  32. z said,

    May 13, 2011 @ 12:05 am

    @ Erik Zyman Carrasco

    What you say about phone numbers in Mexican Spanish is also true of Russian, to the point where using single digits sounds calquey or childish.

    But this is quite off-topic now.

  33. maidhc said,

    May 13, 2011 @ 2:13 am

    I remember an old Harry Tate comedy record from the 1930s where he gave his phone number as "one one double-one eleven eleven one".

  34. Catanea said,

    May 14, 2011 @ 3:18 am

    I would like to take issue with "pound sign". I'd've said £ is a "pound sign" and # is a hash mark?

  35. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    May 15, 2011 @ 3:08 pm

    In the U.S., automated phone tree services at toll-free 800 numbers use "pound sign" when referring to #.

    Your interpretation makes sense, but it doesn't seem to reflect usage in the U.S., perhaps because the pound sign for currency is only seen infrequently.

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