Seven words you can't say in a cartoon

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The latest issue of the New Yorker (July 7 & 14) has a Roz Chast cartoon (p. 75), "seven words you can't say in a cartoon", that's a tribute to the late George Carlin and his famous "Filthy Words" routine, "seven words you can't say on television". All the "words" are strings of obscenicons (credit to Ben Zimmer for the coinage, an alternative to the blander cursing characters), those punctuation marks, stars, spirals, and the like that are used to compose representations of cursewords in cartoons. (We've posted here many times on obscenicons.)

Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find an image of the cartoon suitable for display here. You can view the cartoon on the New Yorker Store site by searching on {Chast "seven words"} in the Prints section of the store and clicking on the image to enlarge it. (It's not available in the slide show of cartoons from this issue on the New Yorker site itself.)

But wait! Jonathan Lundell has managed to extract an image when I was not:


  1. Flora said,

    July 4, 2008 @ 3:05 pm

    Direct link, I think:, though course since they seem to be selling the image on things, probably good to still mention how to get to where they are doing so.

  2. Joe said,

    July 4, 2008 @ 4:31 pm

    "Search on"? Not "search for"? Is that a Briticism?

    I wouldn't question it, except that this of all places would be the place to ask.

  3. mike said,

    July 4, 2008 @ 4:54 pm

    "Search on" sounds perfectly ok to me, and I'm all, like, American and stuff.

    >You can view the cartoon

    The last-ditch strategy might also be, of course, to purchase a copy of the magazine. :-)

  4. Karen said,

    July 4, 2008 @ 5:01 pm

    "Search on" is what I say (also American) when I mean "enter into a search engine". "Search for" would be for searches FOR something, like a book or store.

  5. Karen said,

    July 4, 2008 @ 5:03 pm

    Oh. They're selling this one. No wonder it's not available on the site.

  6. Joe said,

    July 4, 2008 @ 5:18 pm

    Well, I'm a Midwesterner, who was later transplanted to the Southwest, if that makes any difference. But "search on" sounds completely wrong to me, for whatever reason. I don't hear any distinction between the two in meaning.

  7. Faldone said,

    July 4, 2008 @ 7:09 pm

    What mike said. You're not searching for, e.g., Chast "seven words". You're searching for something, in this case a cartoon that those terms would apply to.

  8. Gwillim Law said,

    July 4, 2008 @ 9:53 pm

    There's already a word for what you're calling obscenicons. It's grawlixes, attested since 1964. To my observation it seems to be pretty well known in the cartooning community. It gets a lot more ghits than obscenicons, 3,626 to 47 counting both singular and plural.

    Admittedly, obscenicon is easier for the uninitiated to figure out; on the other hand, grawlix is harsher-sounding and less highfalutin. I urge you, in the interest of stabilizing the technical vocabulary, to eschew the former and adopt the latter for future posts.

  9. sandra wilde said,

    July 4, 2008 @ 10:37 pm

    at this site you can buy a t-shirt of the cartoon for $20 or a framed print for more. The original art is also for sale. I've previously bought t-shirts from them of language-related cartoons.

  10. Jonathan Lundell said,

    July 5, 2008 @ 12:44 am

    If I had to distinguish search on from search for, I'd say that search on refers to the search pattern that I use for my query, and I hope to find what I search for in the result of that search.

    Means vs end, as it were.

  11. dr pepper said,

    July 5, 2008 @ 1:51 am

    Agreed. You "search for" a subject, but you "search on" a carefully composed search string. Hence, "search on" would sound strange to me if applied to flipping through a physical reference book.

  12. Joe said,

    July 5, 2008 @ 3:03 am

    Do you use "search on" in any non-computer contexts, then?

    In another thread someone mentioned grammatical "alarm bells" that go off even if the sentence is perfectly understandable. The phrase "search on" trips one of those for me, probably because I unconsciously expand "on" to something like "on top of."

    Perhaps there are some forms of the word "on" I do not use?

  13. dr pepper said,

    July 5, 2008 @ 4:49 am

    No, i don't use "search on" in a non computer context. I would say "search on top of", though. "Search on" has a sense of "on" as "by means of" or "based on" or "using" as in phrases like "dine on", "improvise on", "expound on", etc.

  14. Arnold Zwicky said,

    July 5, 2008 @ 11:32 am

    Gwillim Law: "There's already a word for what you're calling obscenicons. It's grawlixes, attested since 1964. To my observation it seems to be pretty well known in the cartooning community."

    "Gawlix" does indeed seem to be used in the cartooning community, but not always in this very general sense. As I noted here, one fonts site uses "grawlix" for a particular spiral thingy, and Mort Walker's Lexicon of Comicana uses it for squiggly glyphs representing "ostensibly obliterated epithets". These sources give various other obscenicons: jarns, quimps, nittles, and squeans. And, of course, various ordinary punctuation marks also serve as obscenicons, as we've noted several times on Language Log.

    GL: "It gets a lot more ghits than obscenicons, 3,626 to 47 counting both singular and plural."

    Well, of course it does: "grawlix" was coined (by Mort Walker) some time ago (1964), the more transparent "obscenicon" much more recently. Apparently, Walker's original usage was the general one — except that it referred to strings of glyphs, rather than to individual glyphs. By 1980 (the Lexicon) Walker had specialized the meaning of "grawlix" in two ways (and treated obscenicons in general under the heading "maladicta").

    All of this is somewhat beside the point. There is nothing wrong with different communities using somewhat different terminology. Often people have reasons for favoring particular terms over alternatives. All that's required is that the meaning be clear in context.

  15. Ryan Denzer-King said,

    July 5, 2008 @ 1:41 pm

    I'd never heard "search on" before, so it was decidedly odd for me.

  16. Reinhold Aman said,

    July 5, 2008 @ 3:08 pm

    Note to those who add comments: The title of Arnold's post is "Seven words you can't say in a cartoon" and his topic is "obscenicons," not "search on" vs. "search for." Please respect the Comments Policy, here and elsewhere, which clearly discourages such $#!++@ off-topic digressions.

  17. Joe said,

    July 5, 2008 @ 3:24 pm

    I'd use "dine on", but never "improvise on," and for me, it would be "expound upon." I would use "search on top of," though, even if I have trouble imagining that search engines have any kind of "top."

    If I were looking for a word to make the distinction everyone else seems to make between "search for" and "search on," I would have chosen "search with" or "search using [the term(s)]" to do it, though I suspect the problem is that I don't make any distinction at all between being told what to "search on" and choosing what to search for.

    Anyhow, I don't mean to hijack the thread any further, but I'm finding this tidbit almost as interesting as the rest of the post.

  18. Jonathan Bogart said,

    July 5, 2008 @ 4:40 pm

    Is it possible that "search on" was originally a shortened version of "run a search on," which is an idiom I'm more familiar with? (I too would say "search for" in a Google context.)

  19. Nik Berry said,

    July 5, 2008 @ 4:49 pm

    '"Search on"? Not "search for"? Is that a Briticism?'

    No, it's not. I'm a Brit, and it seems weird to me.

  20. Joe said,

    July 5, 2008 @ 11:35 pm

    Yeah, "run a search on" sounds normal to me. It would be interesting to know if there's any pattern as to which speakers say that "search on" sounds natural to them.

  21. JimG said,

    July 6, 2008 @ 12:30 am

    If one thinks on it for a moment, one might speak on the basis of an assumption that "running a Google search on a term" is no worse than describing a surgeon operating on a patient. I always discard the amusing image of the surgeon standing atop the patient; Can we not get on with our searches?

  22. 400guy said,

    July 6, 2008 @ 7:05 pm

    I didn't twig to anything strange about "search on" until others commented. Now, it occurs to me that I am likely to say "search on" to specify which attribute of a database to examine, something like "search on order date and item number"

    rent-a-geek and database-bithead

  23. Janice Huth Byer said,

    July 6, 2008 @ 11:12 pm

    At the risk of being sworn at by Mr. Aman, I'd like to suggest simply "search" with no preposition. Same as we might direct someone to Google blankety blank. I'm no authority, merely a retired reference librarian, who did literature searches last century in databases like LexisNexis. For example, at the request of a patron, I'd search "Richard Nixon" in Lexis. (For what it's worth, by cracky.)

  24. Reinhold Aman said,

    July 7, 2008 @ 3:06 pm

    @ Janice Huth Byer:
    Fear not, dear Janice. Even though still off-topic, your suggestion of simply using "search" is perfect and should kill this meandering thread: we don't need no steenkin' prepositions.

    As to using maledicta, I never swear at reference librarians, my admired comrades-in-arm. It's the inconsiderate or pigheaded $#!+s who, despite my polite suggestion to knock off their f%$@ing mindless comments, kept adding their off-topic drivel and tempted me to use not just obscenicons (better: maledictacons or kakologocons) but the real McCoys. But I respect L.L. too much and don't want to degrade it into an unmoderated newsgroup or unmoderated mailing list.

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