Why the @#$%& Do We Bleep Obscenities?
Every so often, you run into that crazy string of punctuation that’s meant to represent a curse word. The intent is to censor the language to make it appropriate reading for all ages, but since everyone’s brain fills in the “bleeped out” letters anyway, it can often be used for lighthearted fun.
So why do we bleep obscenities and use things like @#$%& in the first place? Let’s look at the history of profanity in America.
History of the Bleeping Bleep
Anyone who watches television or listens to the radio in the United States (and many other countries) would be familiar with the ubiquitous “bleep,” the electronic beep that covers vulgar or objectionable words to make the content “family friendly.”
But where did this bleep come from?
It all dates back to a 1921 performance by Vaudeville actress Olga Petrova on New Jersey radio station WJZ.
On this particular day, according to the Verge article “Curses! The birth of the bleep and modern American censorship,” Petrova was supposed to do nothing but perform nursery rhymes over the air, but she twisted things just a bit. For example, in the middle of her performance, she dared to read the following:
“There was an old woman who lived in a shoe. She had so many children because she didn’t know what to do.”
We all know that as the nursery rhyme “The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe” and to modern ears it sounds quite innocent. But Petrova was a radical who called for women to have the right to use birth control, a topic that a century ago was considered improper and obscene. So suggesting a woman had many children because she had no other options was a dangerous topic for 1921.
According to the 1873 Comstock Law, or the Act for the “Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use,” it was illegal to share information about contraception.
In fact, according to the Comstock Laws, anyone who published, shared, lent, or sold any “obscene book, pamphlet, paper, writing, advertisement, circular, print, picture, drawing or other representation, figure, or image on or of paper or other material, or any cast instrument, or other article of an immoral nature, or any drug or medicine, or any article whatever, for the prevention of conception, or for causing unlawful abortion” could be sentenced to six months hard labor and/or a fine of at least $100 (which would be the equivalent of $1,412.16 in 2019 spending power).
Needless to say, after Petrova’s stunt, the station’s parent company Westinghouse was in a panic. Although there is no record of Petrova being arrested for what she did, the station ensured that such an event could never happen again. An engineer stood by during the broadcast, ready to cut a performer’s microphone and play music (something that actually did happen to Petrova on a future show).
WJZ’s actions, therefore, set the stage for a century of on-air bleeping and censorship.
The Comstock laws were repealed in 1957, but local laws persisted for years afterwards that prohibited obscene, indecent, or profane content from being broadcast or appearing in live performances anywhere in the United States. Television and radio programs would bleep out certain obscene words from songs and recorded programs using an electronic signal, and live broadcasts had a brief time delay that allowed engineers to bleep any accidental obscenities before the material reached the airwaves.
What would catch the censor’s attention? While there wasn’t an official list of prohibited words for American broadcasters, seven dangerous words were immortalized in George Carlin’s unrepentant comedy routine that became the subject of a U.S. Supreme Court case.
Sometimes the bleeps were barely noticeable, but this classic Lenny Bruce routine demonstrates bleeping to the extreme. (Bruce was famously arrested several times in the 1960s for his “obscene” standup comedy routines, and although convicted to four months in jail for his crime, he died before serving his sentence.)
Rather than a bleep, sometimes people got more creative and dubbed different words into the production, with hilarious results. Watching Snakes on a Plane on American television? You might catch this version of the film with “monkey fighting snakes” on a “Monday to Friday” plane. (Really, we couldn’t make that up if we tried).
In the early days, very little got past the censors. Even Rhett Butler’s famous line from Gone with the Wind had to receive special dispensation.
Today, however, social mores have shifted, and people are generally more accepting of cursing in public (possibly in part due to comedy and late night shows pushing the envelope, and then the Internet incinerating what was left of the envelope). So nowadays, other than a few choice words (generally those beginning with f, s, and c) restrictions on profanities and vulgar or obscene content aren’t quite as strict as during the days of early television and radio.
Where Do These @#$%& Things Come From?
Lenny Bruce got one thing right. Cursing can be hilarious. As comic strips grew in popularity in newspapers all across the US, many writers wanted to include swear words coming out of their characters’ mouths, but like radio and television, obscenity laws meant they couldn’t publish strips that contained profanity.
So cartoonists turned to punctuation and symbols to serve as stand-ins for the profanity—the text form of the bleep. This trick dates back to 1902 when Rudolph Dirks used symbols to stand in for swearing in his “Katzenjammer Kids” strip for the New York Journal. Fellow cartoonist Gene Carr adopted the technique in 1903.
There wasn’t an official term for the stand-in text until American cartoonist Mort Walker jumped into the fray. The creator of beloved cartoons Beetle Bailey as well as Hi and Lois came up with the term “Grawlix” to describe the visual representation of cursing in comics.
In his Private Scrapbook (and as quoted on Thoughtco.com), Walker explained,
“It started out as a joke for the National Cartoonists Society magazine. I spoofed the tricks cartoonists use, like dust clouds when characters are running or lightbulbs over their heads when they get an idea.”
And for such a silly thing, people have put a lot of thought into the grawlix.
In the book The Architects Guide to Writing (2014), Bill Schmalz recommended writers use the symbols @, #, $, %, and & for a grawlix. As he explained, “Hyphens, plus signs, asterisks, and carets (^) leave too much white space within the body of the grawlix for it to look like a single word.” So the best combination would be “@#$%&” (or “@#£%&” if you’re British). And if it’s used alone, it should end with an exclamation mark.
Beyond form and grammar rules, Lexicographer Ben Zimmer went one step further and coined a new, more descriptive and scientific term to describe the nonsense symbols. In a Language Log posting he decided, “let’s call ’em obscenicons.”
Making Up Words is Fun!
And in his case, Mort Walker did more than invent the word grawlix. In fact, he built an entire comic book lexicon, naming all of the silly scribbles we have come to know and love. He called these words emanata. Examples include indotherm (wavy, rising lines used to represent steam or heat) and plewds (flying sweat droplets that appear around a character’s head when working hard, stressed, etc.).
Why did he bother? As Walker explained in his Private Scrapbook,
“My son Brian thought I should expand the idea and make a book of it. I spent many hours at the museum going over old cartoons and recording their ‘language.’ I created pseudoscientific names for each cartoon cliché, like the sweat marks cartoon characters radiate. I called them ‘plewds,’ after the god of rain, ‘Joe Pluvius.’ I considered it a humor book. When it came out, I looked for it in the humor section of a bookstore and finally found it in Art Instruction. I inquired and they said, ‘What’s funny about it?’ I said, ‘The names.’ They said, ‘We didn’t know what those things were called.’ I said, ‘They weren’t called anything till I called them that.’ It was another case of satire falling flat. I gave up and am selling it now as an instruction book.”
And thanks to Mort Walker, you can now rest easier knowing all those things have names!
If this kind of thing floats your boat, you can find them all in Walker’s 1980 book The Lexicon of Comicana, with several other examples at Wikipedia.
And let’s not stop there. People are always adding new words to describe… new words.
Do you remember sniglets, popularized by Rich Hall in the 1980s? These are officially defined as “any word that doesn’t appear in the dictionary, but should” and generally come in the form of portmanteau—two words that are mashed together to make a new word. For example, “smog” is a portmanteau of smoke + fog. (One of my personal sniglets is “skiddle” (skillet + griddle).)
Have you ever coined a new word, assigned a term to something, or created a sniglet? Share them with us in the comments below—we’d love to hear what you’ve got! Just make sure they’re not obscene or we’ll have to bleep you!