Asterisk vs. hyphen

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From Ben Smith's blog on the 2008 presidential campaign (from 6 October):

An Obama supporter, who canvassed for the candidate in the working-class, white Philadelphia neighborhood of Fishtown recently, sends over an account that, in various forms, I've heard a lot in recent weeks.

"What's crazy is this," he writes. "I was blown away by the outright racism, but these folks are f***ing undecided. They would call him a n—-r and mention how they don't know what to do because of the economy."

The notable feature here is the use of two different avoidance characters: asterisks in "f***ing", hyphens in "n—-r". I don't recall having seen this sort of typographical differentiation before.

Justin Kiggins, who sent me the link, canvassed some possibilities:

I've always considered the choice of which avoidance characters to use as largely independent from the word being avoided, except maybe instances where characters are chosen in order to convey some visual aspect of the avoided word, like "$#!+" as an extreme example. But why would one choose asterisks for "fucking" and dashes for "nigger"? Would it have something to do with the degree of the taboo, especially the taboo for the author? "Fucking" is his word, while "nigger" is used by the people he is quoting. He seems to be a liberally minded person, so I expect that, while "fucking" could be used in his spoken vocabulary, "nigger" probably is not. I imagine him sharing this story out loud, and saying "fucking" while avoiding "nigger" through some other means (N-word, etc). Does the choice of dashes reflect this in some way? Either reflecting the speaker or the degree of the taboo?

Another possible dimension is the kind of word avoided: asterisks for taboo words in the narrow sense ("expletives"), hyphens for slurs.

My guess is that the hyphens serve to distance the writer from the words used by the people he spoke to, while taking credit for his own words, much as Kiggins suggests.

[Follow-up 11 October: several readers have written to suggest that the asterisks and hyphens might have had different sources — one from the original writer, the other from Ben Campbell. I was about to write Campbell to ask him, but Justin Kiggins got there before me. The original writer used hyphens, and Campbell introduced the asterisks.]

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