Grawlixes or Obscenicons
Grawlix: a spiral-shaped graphic used to indicate swearing in comic strips (comprising typographical symbols, non-letter graphic characters which are encased in a word-free balloon)
~ Wiktionary, http://wiktionary.org
Etymology of the Grawlix
The term Grawlix itself comes from veteran American cartoonist Addison Morton Walker. The sprightly nonagenarian better known to the world as Mort Walker has gleaned lifelong fame in the US (and elsewhere where his comics are treasured) from two of his creations, Beetle Bailey and a spin-off of sorts, Hi and Lois. Beetle Bailey is especially beloved of seriously rusted-on US comic aficionados. Beetle, a private (zero-class!) in an unnamed US Army military post, has been described as “a feckless, shirking, perpetual goof-off and straggler known for his chronic laziness and generally insubordinate attitude”. Debuting in September 1950 Beetle Bailey is among the oldest comic strips still being produced by the original creator [‘Beetle Bailey’, Wikipedia,http://en.m.wikipedia.org].
Walker apparently coined the term ‘grawlix’ around 1964…it appears in a tongue-in-cheek article he penned called “Let’s Get Down to Grawlixes”. A nonsense word, grawlix is the descriptor that Walker came up with to depict a cartoonist’s standard device: to show that one of his or her’s characters was uttering a “four-letter” word or words in the strip without infringing any moral codes, the cartoonist would draw a combination of typographical symbols and insert them in the dialogue balloon in place of the actual profane words. Commonly but not uniformly, the symbols used are @#$%&! or slight variations on this (whichever typographics are used, the grawlix always ends with an exclamation mark [Nordquist]). And as a way of expressing powerful, earthy emotions without having to call in the censors, it caught on within the realm of popular graphic art!”❉
Mort Walker’s catalogue of neologisms
In his Lexicon of Comicana (1980) Walker in his jocular fashion elaborates on his personal vocabulary of neologisms from the world of the cartoonist (with mock grandness he called these his Symbolia)…so in addition to grawlix the Lexicon contains many of Walker’s trademark neologisms, words coined for his own amusement, some with strange-sounding onomatopoeic names – a few of which are listed below.
In addition to grawlix, Walker devised and named three other sets of symbols and squiggles representing graphic euphemisms for the unspeakable and very taboo swear words – Quimps, Jarns and Nittles (basically hard to distinguish from grawlixes but something very similar by another name!) [World Wide Words].
Moving away the topic of obscenities Mort came up with other words to describe some of the graphics representing the range of feelings and emotions experienced by his comic personae – such as squean – squeans are starbursts and little circles above the character’s head to indicate a state of intoxication, dizziness or unwellness¤.
Other logo-inventions in the idiosyncratic Walker Lexicon are variations on the same theme – such as:
Emanate – lines drawn around the head to show shock or surprise
Plewds – flying sweat droplets that appear around a character’s head to indicate working hard, stressed, etc.
Another neologism in Walker’s ‘cartoonucopia’ is Indotherm – wavy, rising lines used to represent steam or heat; when the same shape is used to denote smell, it is called a wafteron.
Before the grawlix was the unnamed ‘grawlix’
Mort Walker gave the world a recognisable name to identify what is today a standard cartoonist’s device for representing profanity in a non-verbal way, but the use of @#$%&! wrapped in a speech bubble far predates modern comic strip practitioners like Walker. Ben Zimmer has researched early US comic strip history to find that the device features in comics goes as far back as 1902 – the work of Rudolph Dirks employed the grawlix in his strip (he just didn’t it that, or anything!). In Dirk”s “Katzenjammer Kids” for the New York Journal… the pioneering cartoonist “initiat(ed) the use of both speech balloons and…symbolic swearing”. This was emulated by a contemporary cartoonist of Dirks, Gene Carr, at about the same time (1903). Zimmer himself eschews the random ‘Grawlix’, preferring the term Obscenicon💢[Zimmer].
Grawlixes and other such graphic devices are the indispensable tools of cartoonists and comic artists looking for a way to economise with words and convey an emotion succinctly. They are non-verbal and thus all about visual cues…they can convey obscenities without recourse to the offending words themselves, or they can summarise an action or reaction instantly with an image that obviates the need for words and a lengthy explanatory sentence.
❆∺❆∺❆∺❆∺❆∺❆ ❆∺❆∺❆∺❆∺❆∺❆ ❆∺❆∺❆∺❆∺❆∺❆
Interjection: is a part of speech using words solely designed to convey (often strong) emotions (reinforcing meaning or feeling). It conveys the emotion, sentiment or feelings of its speaker [‘What is An Interjection?’, (Your Dictionary), www.grammar.yourdictionary.com].
Another way of characterising the interjection is through its syntactic position. It is “an exclamation inserted into an utterance without grammatical connection to it” [ibid.]. Interjections are the tools of casual or creative communication, they have an informality to them, and in many cases an outright ‘slanginess’ to them (eg, ‘Jeez’, ‘Holy cow!’ (or ‘mackerel’), ‘Fiddlesticks!’, ‘Baloney!’, ‘Bingo!’, ‘Mama-Mia!’).
All contemporary engagers in social media are (over)familiar with exclamations like ‘LOL’ and ‘OMG’ (case optional) or ‘Ha-ha’ which infest the online world of communications like locusts at harvest season⊛. Interjections are exhaustive in number and heterogeneous in nature. They can be used to communicate a broad spectrum of different feelings – from anger and frustration (Argh) to sadness or sentimentality (Aw) to confusion (Huh!) to disgust (Yuck!) to mockery (Whoop-de-doo⊡) to indifference (Meh) to surprise (Wow!) to excitement (Woo-hoo!) to triumph (Yay!) not to be confused with the affirmative ‘Yea!’ [Fleming].
Interjections are usually positioned at the start of the sentence, occasionally at the end (the purpose being to maximise the message’s impact or effect). And like the sound themselves, most interjections can be strengthened by elongating them [Vidarholen] – adding one or more extra w’s to Aw gives weight to the degree of empathy you want to convey to your interlocutor; similarly using more than one Ha-ha is interjector code for turning up the laughter gauge! Putting an exclamation mark after the interjection is not mandatory but is often employed in the spirit of the lack of restraint that characterises this part of speech. After all, interjections are at their core exclamations – the appended ! goes with the territory!
PostScript 1: “Onomatopoeic interjections”
Onomatopoeic words or phrases are ones that imitate the sound of a thing or action, splash! is therefore onomatopoeic, it is also an interjection. Interjections represent emotion and can usually be distinguished from onomatopoeia which represents sounds, although there is clearly some overlap between the two. Another point of difference is that an interjection is syntactically isolated, it has no grammatical connection with the rest of the sentence⌽.
PostScript 2: Batman – Holy interjections with graphics!
The cult 1960s television series Batman is a veritable feast of interjections…in just about every episode Boy Wonder Robin, with excruciating monotony, specialises in uttering interjections of the “Holy ……” kind. Robin would pick the opportune moment to breathlessly interject with “Holy Switch-a-Roo”, “Holy Superlatives”, “Holy Cliche” or whatever other topical word pertaining to the “Dynamic Duo’s” particular predicament de jour [Oxford Dictionaries Blog].
The sublimely ridiculous Bat Fight scenes in the TV show are replete with interjections…as Batman and the arch-villains land thunderous blows on each other, corny graphics flash up with words representing the pugilistic action (SOCK! AIMEE! BIFF! WHAMM! KAPOW! THUNK! BANG!). Interestingly Batman’s art department incorporated some comic strip style graphics into the flashing word cards (eg, stars within the word SOCK! signifying the effects of being ‘socked’, ie, dazed, dizzy – akin to a kind of squean? KAPOW! with a bulls-eye target inside the O)
❉ placed in dialogue boxes above the characters’ heads (Walker calls these “Maledicta balloons”)
¤ a character with both a squean and a spurl (a vertical upward-spiralling coil) above his or her head is more than a little drunk, they’ve had a ‘skinful’ in fact! [Brownlee]
⊛ its unquantifiable definitively, but an empirical survey of the various avenues of social media would confirm an upsurge in interjection usage in everyday communications
💢 Urban Dictionary describes ‘oscenicons’ as “like a emoticon, but for profane words”
⊡ especially mocking someone who is trying to impress
⌽ the Onomatopoeia Dictionary lists a number of words that can represent both forms of expression, eg, wham, phew, shoo, shush, ha-ha, geez
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J Brownlee, ‘Quimps, Plewds, And Grawlixes: The Secret Language Of Comic Strips’, (Co. Design), 15-Jul-2013, www.fastcodesign.com
Grace Fleming, ‘Interjections’, Thought Co, 23-Apr-2015, www.thoughtco.com
Richard Nordquist, ‘What the @#$%&! Is a Grawlix?’ (Thought Co), 02-May-2017, www.thoughtco.com
B Zimmer, ‘How did @#$%&! come to represent profanity?’, Slate, 09-Oct-2013, www.slate.com
‘Grawlixes’, (World Wide Words), www.worldwidewords.org
The lexicon of comicana’, Wikipedia,http://en.m.wikipedia.org
‘Dictionary of Interjections’, www.vidarholen.net
‘From “Gadzooks” to “Cowabunga”: some episodes in the life of the interjection’, Oxford Dictionaries, www.blog.oxforddictionaries.com
Onomatopoeia Dictionary A-Z, (Written Sound), www.writtensound.com