The concept of substituting symbols for swears is not a new phenomenon. In fact, it has been a textual institution since the 1600s. F$%^!
Symbolic stand-ins have long been used to soften the blow of swear words in situations where their presence might be too confronting but also necessary. So how did symbols come to signify such taboo language? Short answer: early 20th-century comic strips, though we ought to go over the history of typographical bleeping to get the full picture.
The dash is the earliest example of typographical bleeping. It is also the most boring. In the late 1600s, editors were dashing words like God (“G-d”) and damn (“d—“) when taking the Lord’s name in vain. In the 1700s, “you saucy B-tch” featured in a grim poem as a “warning to young, married men.”
Interestingly, the conventional use of the dash (aka blank because of the space made between letters) led to the swearing euphemism blankety-blank that came about in the 1800s.
Some claim that symbols (other than the dash) in place of complete swearwords trace back to Ancient Egypt (as so many things do) but whatever the case, today’s use stems from the early 1900s comic strip The Katzenjammer Kids. Rudolph Dirks, the 20-year old German immigrant cartoonist who drew into being Hans and Fritz, the two characters responsible for symbolic swearing, likely also invented the speech bubble.
A 1902 episode of the comic harboured the first recorded use of symbols to censor a swearword, where the Katzenjammers toy with Uncle Heinie on a ladder. Outraged, Uncle Heinie lets loose a speech bubble of “–!-!-?-”. The anchor, in particular, stands as a nice creative touch, with “swearing like a sailor” a popular idiom in those days.
The comic-strip world came to embrace such a practice over the decades when it came to profanities, so much so that in the 1960s the cartoonist Mort Walker devised the tongue-in-cheek term grawlix to describe the swear-symbols. The more recent term obscenicon—a word that combines obscenity and icon)—was coined by linguist Ben Zimmer as a more accurate representation of the trend.
According to blogger Kurt Kaletka, “The term grawlix dates from an article by Beetle Bailey creator Mort Walker, in a 1964 article he wrote as the president of the National Cartoonists’ Society. Walker included the word in a book he wrote in 1980 titled The Lexicon of Comicana, in which he set out to define all the other cartoon conventions, as well. Besides grawlix, Walker wrote about plewds, which are the droplets of sweat that fly off of a nervous cartoon character’s body, and hites, which are the horizontal lines that appear behind a cartoon character moving very fast. The book identified dozens of other cartoon conventions that had previously been unnamed. Walker intended the book more as a joke than anything else, but today it is used as a serious reference in academic settings, and a number of these words that he invented appear in dictionaries today.”
Kaletka continues, “In Astérix et les Goths, Gothic barbarians are planning an invasion of neighbouring Gaul in the year 50BCE. The main characters of the comic are Gauls. Their words appear in speech bubbles with ordinary lettering, written in French. The Gauls didn’t speak French, of course, but dozens of different Celtic languages, but the cartoon glosses over that and treats them as one collective “Gaulish” language.
“The Goths’ words are printed in French, but in a script that suggests the German Fraktur font, which was commonly used until the middle of the 20th century. The Gaulish characters can’t understand the Goths, because they speak a different language, but the reader can follow along with everything. The box at the bottom of the panel reads, ‘Gothic curses, which are thus translated into Gaulish.’
“The symbols in Gaulish don’t look much different from the symbols in Gothic, but the joke still works. Note the skull and crossbones, where the Gothic version sports an old German army helmet from before World War I. Also worth noting is the dismantled (but still clear) swastika which is used as a ‘Gothic’ curse. This joke (as well as the storyline about invading Goths) ruffled some feathers when it was first published. It was several years before Astérix started to be translated into German, and the swastika grawlix got ‘translated’ as well.”