The birth of obscenicons

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Back in 2010, I went in search of the earliest examples of cartoon cursing characters — those playful typographical symbols that have been called "grawlixes" (a term coined by "Beetle Bailey" creator Mort Walker) but which I prefer calling "obscenicons." I detailed my quest in two Language Log posts: "Obscenicons a century ago" and "More on the early days of obscenicons." (The posts were later adapted for Slate's Lexicon Valley blog: "How Did @#$%&! Come to Represent Profanity?") I was able to find obscenicons going all the way back to Dec. 14, 1902 in Rudolph Dirks' pioneering comic strip "The Katzenjammer Kids," followed shortly thereafter by Gene Carr's "Lady Bountiful" comic starting in Feb. 1903.

I was pleased to learn that my obscenicon posts inspired Phil Edwards of Vox to do his own searching on newspaper databases, and the results can be seen in an entertaining new video, "How #$@!% became shorthand for cursing." Turns out obscenicons can be pushed back even further, to 1901.


I had assumed that Rudolph Dirks was the first to use obscenicons in "The Katzenjammer Kids," since as the Vox video describes, he was responsible for many early comic-strip innovations, like the consistent use of speech balloons. But when it comes to obscenicons, he may have been beaten to the punch by his colleague Gene Carr, as he was developing the character of Lady Bountiful — described by the Lambiek Comiclopedia as "a rich, well-mannered woman who used her wealth to help and adopt poor street children" (modeled after a character of the same name in George Farquhar's 1707 play, The Beaux' Stratagem).

Phil Edwards used Newspapers.com to look through the archives of the San Francisco Examiner, a Hearst-owned newspaper that ran comic strips by both Dirks and Carr. (Pulitzer hired off Carr in 1903 to work for the New York World, the main rival of Hearst's New York Journal.) He discovered the following "Lady Bountiful" strip, published in the Examiner on Nov. 1, 1901.

Here's the panel with obscenicons:

Following Phil's lead, I skimmed through slightly earlier "Lady Bountiful" strips in the Examiner and found this one from Oct. 19, 1901.

In this panel, we can see a proto-obscenicon — just a single starburst followed by an exclamation point.

This strip appeared about two weeks after "Lady Bountiful" was introduced in Hearst papers on Oct. 2, 1901, so it's unlikely that there are any earlier examples to be found in Carr's work. It may still be possible to find Dirks using obscenicons — or proto-obscenicons — before Carr did, since "The Katzenjammer Kids" had been running since 1897. But for now, we should extend a hearty %$#@! to Carr for being the apparent originator of the now-familiar visual representation of words too obscene to print.



21 Comments

  1. Chips Mackinolty said,

    February 23, 2019 @ 1:18 am

    Any notion of obsenicons in other languages–perhaps even earlier than English? If not can 19 October be embraced as International Onsenicon Day? I'd !*#¶ing love to see that!

  2. Chips Mackinolty said,

    February 23, 2019 @ 1:22 am

    Sorry International Obsenicon Day!

    Have since found a reference to obsenicons in French (in Tintin comics) from 1929.

  3. Eli Bishop said,

    February 23, 2019 @ 3:11 am

    The linked articles have a few references to Mort Walker's Lexicon of Comicana. I think that book tends to be discussed in a somewhat credulous way in the non-comics press—that is, there's often an implication that Walker's terms were influential in the field, which isn't really true.

    At least among cartoonists I know, which is a fairly large number, absolutely no one has ever said "grawlix", "plewd", etc. People with an interest in the history of newspaper strips are aware of the book, but mostly as a novelty; Walker's terms didn't catch on, nor did he really intend them to. Once in a while someone will write "plewd" in an article, because it's funny, but then they have to immediately explain the reference because otherwise no one knows what they're talking about.

    Anyway, the one exception is that "emanata" is fairly well known (though it's been generalized beyond Walker's definition to include other kinds of marks for wooziness, inebriation, anger, etc.). Still, by far the most common way to describe this stuff is just to describe it, so what people will usually say are boring ad-hoc phrases like "surprise lines", "swear symbols", etc… not really terms of art.

  4. Philip Taylor said,

    February 23, 2019 @ 4:37 am

    Not being familiar with the cartoonist or his/her work, what is the significance of the spelling of "dare" as "cher" ? "Dat" I recognise and understand, but not "cher".

  5. David Morris said,

    February 23, 2019 @ 4:45 am

    Is there any systemisation to obscenicons – both the way they are written and what taboo word they are meant to represent? Ben finishes with a hearty %#$@!, which is shift-54321 on the keyboard (mine, at least). Lexicon Valley's @#$%&! is shift 234571 on my keyboard.

    Chips wrote 'I'd !*#¶ing love to see that!'. I suspect that the pilcrow is rarely used in an obscenicon (though it might be appropriate for one uttered by a proofreader), and he mixes it with the English morpheme -ing. 'I'd !*#¶ing love to see that!' v 'I'd !*#¶ love to see that!'

  6. David Morris said,

    February 23, 2019 @ 4:46 am

    Something's gone wrong with the formatting there.

  7. Thomas Rees said,

    February 23, 2019 @ 4:59 am

    Philip Taylor: It's "dontcher" (don't you) /dəʊntʃə/

  8. Ricardo said,

    February 23, 2019 @ 5:23 am

    Obscenicons must be nearing obsoletion in this day and age.

  9. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    February 23, 2019 @ 6:04 am

    @Philip Taylor That's not "dare", that's a rhotic spelling of "dontcha" with intrusive r.

  10. Bathrobe said,

    February 23, 2019 @ 6:47 am

    a rhotic spelling

    Actually it's a non-rhotic spelling. Inserting an 'r' that isn't there originated with non-rhotic speakers, and was presumably imitated by rhotics. Rhotic speakers wouldn't add an 'r' of their own accord because they wouldn't hear one in there.

  11. Richard Hershberger said,

    February 23, 2019 @ 8:16 am

    I have an antedate, or at least a proto-, from 1882. I do extensive newspaper reading in my early baseball research. My notes naturally are mostly of baseball interest, but I occasionally note other stuff that captures my interest. Reports of cursing, which both players and spectators were known to indulge in, make it into my notes when there is enough detail to know what was said, or is otherwise of interest. (The reported content, by the way, is sadly unimaginative. For all our sentimentalizing of cursing of the past, everything I run across turns out to be pretty routine, and familiar today.) The Cincinnati Commercial Appeal of June 14, 1882, reports on the remarks of Lew Simmons, the manager of the Athletics of Philadelphia, following the previous day's game:

    'Manager Simmons after the game yesterday was heard to remark: "!-!!-!!!-!!!!-***-(?)." '

    The commenting system doesn't seem to allow me to insert a picture, but you can find this at genealogybank.com

    [(bgz) Here it is…]

  12. Richard Hershberger said,

    February 23, 2019 @ 9:16 am

    As a side note, one of my favorite examples comes from an incident in early 1887, before the season even began. James Roseman of the Athletics went on a debauch, and was suspended by Frank Bancroft, the manager. Roseman didn't take it well. As reporting in Sporting Life of April 27, 1887:

    "Roseman retorted: 'You've jumped on me early, haven't you?' and then became wild and boisterous and swung himself around while Umpire Knight held him. Roseman wanted the boys to 'let me get at the — — – —– 'till I hit him on the kisser,'"

    I admire this use of typography. The use of dashes as discreet ellipsis was standard. But consider the number and spacing of the dashes and the exact quote becomes clear.

  13. John K Gayle said,

    February 23, 2019 @ 9:46 am

    It's fun to see how different ones interpret the coining of the phrases.

    Example 1: Drew Miller writes –

    "Obsenicon, a portmanteau of 'obscene' and 'icon,' employs the same idea of substituting other symbols for profanity."

    (in his post "5 Symbols You've Always Used But Probably Can't Name" at the blog at mic.com)

    Example 2: Henry Jenkins writes a full page on how Mort Walker may have been coining pseudo theoretical terms with "plewds," "grawlizes," "emenata," and the like –

    https://bltnotjustasandwich.files.wordpress.com/2018/02/comic.coinages.by_.mort_.walker.jpg

    (in his chapter "Formalist Theory: The Cartoonists" in the book "The Secret Origins of Comics Studies" edited by Matthew Smith and Randy Duncan, page 135, my highlights in the image linked above)

  14. cameron said,

    February 23, 2019 @ 11:47 am

    Yeah, I think Mort Walker was mostly joking, inventing funny technical terms for his field after the manner of Cab Calloway's 1939 Hepster's Dictionary.

  15. Scott P. said,

    February 23, 2019 @ 4:20 pm

    I admire this use of typography. The use of dashes as discreet ellipsis was standard. But consider the number and spacing of the dashes and the exact quote becomes clear.

    Perhaps you could elaborate?

  16. Philip Taylor said,

    February 23, 2019 @ 5:53 pm

    I confess that the dash example defeats me, too. I even went to the trouble of identifying all component elements, and I find it contains :

    U+2014 : EM DASH
    U+0020 : SPACE [SP]
    U+2014 : EM DASH
    U+0020 : SPACE [SP]
    U+2013 : EN DASH
    U+0020 : SPACE [SP]
    U+2014 : EM DASH
    U+2013 : EN DASH
    U+0020 : SPACE [SP]

    but I am no wiser as to what it was intended to represent.

  17. Andrew Usher said,

    February 23, 2019 @ 7:36 pm

    Surely 'son of a bitch' – the latter two dashes representing one long one in the original. A most common American curse at the time, and still not obsolete.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo.com

  18. Richard Hershberger said,

    February 23, 2019 @ 10:40 pm

    Yes, "son of a bitch." The dashes did not quite translate into the comments. In the original you could count the number and spacing of them, and it matched perfectly for "son of a bitch."

  19. Ray said,

    February 24, 2019 @ 10:06 am

    I like how the hand-drawn symbols in the early cartoons have evolved into typewritten ones (the uppercase of the numerals on a keyboard)…

    speaking of typography, I wonder why these "obscenicons" aren't simply called "dingbats"…

  20. KeithB said,

    February 25, 2019 @ 10:03 am

    In one of the MacAuslan stories, the narrator relates an incident when he was in charge of some local athletic competition for the regiment's kids.

    After losing a race, one of the known trouble makers is consoled by some visiting royalty.

    "I am sorry you lost the race."
    "I would have won if it hadn't been for the #$% kid who ^%#$%^ bumped me!"

    The VIP turned to the RSM and asks "What did he say?" To which the RSM replies "He said 'thank you' in the gaelic, ma'am."

  21. MikeA said,

    February 25, 2019 @ 11:45 am

    @KeithB

    You might find this:

    https://www.theregister.co.uk/2019/02/19/occult_text_from_buffy_the_vampire_slayer_ep_actually_just_story_about_new_bus_lane_in_dublin/

    interesting. I'd ask about when "talking like a furriner" became shorthand for "obscene and possibly demonic", but I suspect we won't fond any written records back that far.

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