After considerable deliberation and fucking around with shit, and probably a bit of “fuck it,” we’ve redone the look of the Strong Language blog a bit, including a new banner to make it bolder and to give us a more grabby icon for Twitter and elsewhere. Among other things, it features grawlix. Grawlixes. (Grawlices? Hm, no.)
You know what grawlixes are, right? Grawlix is a word invented by Mort Walker to refer to those various symbols – some typographic, others including skulls, spirals, and lightning bolts – that cartoonists use to represent swearing. (Read more about grawlix on my blog Sesquiotica if you want.)
Well, those are innocuous, right? Simply typography and cartoons, no swearwords actually presented. Suitable for all occasions.
Ha. Like fuck they are. Ask yourself if you would use “WTF” or “OMFG” with your Sunday school teacher (or equivalent adult authority figure). We know what the F stands for. Likewise, we know what grawlixes stand for.
OK, sure, there’s no exact lexicalized translation. We can’t say, for instance, that $#!% stands for shit. But they mean someone is using bad language. They are swears by proxy. Here, look: the padre in Beetle Bailey (created by Mort Walker) suggests Sarge use the word “grawlix” instead. (How meta!) You can feel sure that grawlixes wouldn’t pass in a church in real life.
Here’s my proof: I got into trouble in Sunday school with them once. We were in the cramped, chthonic back basement room of St. Paul’s in Banff and for some fuckin’ reason we were doing something that involved cartoons of fish, I can’t remember what. I can just remember that, for want of anything more engaging to do with my hands and the larger part of my attention, I drew speech bubbles on the fish and filled the speech bubbles with grawlix. Grawlixes. (I keep wanting grawlix to be plural or a mass object.)
Strangely, “Those aren’t real swears” didn’t impress the teacher all that much. I mean, I’m sure I would have gotten in a lot more trouble if I had actually had the fish saying, for instance, “Fuck your fish face.” I knew that. But the teacher – whoever she was; I can’t even remember – was pretty pissed off. (She would absolutely shit herself if she saw this blog.)
Well, go figure. Try using grawlix in a formal letter, perhaps to a client. “We’re @$%#& certain that this approach will produce the right &*!¶§¢! effect.” Sure, it won’t get as strong a response as “We’re fucking certain that this approach will produce the right goddamn effect.” But it is very likely to be a contract-limiting – probably career-limiting – move.
Which reminds me of a job interview I had once where I made a pun on “fuck it.” Curiously, I didn’t get the job. But, look, I was the kid in grade 1 who chased a grade 2 kid around the playground to get him to tell me the dirty jokes he knew. You can see where I might have thought grawlixes were equivalent to church language.
I mean, I didn’t. I knew very fucking well that they were inappropriate. But it makes a good excuse, doesn’t it?
The Sunday school teacher didn’t think so either.
Reminds me of Robert Bringhurst’s appendix to his 2011 reissue of A Story as Sharp as a Knife (which was the part of the generally fascinating book that I found most fascinating):
“Haida, like most Native American languages, employs a number of speech signs that are not present in English and for which the basic Latin alphabet has no conventional symbols…
For much of the twentieth century, linguists did a lot of their work with typewriters, and in devising practical alphabets there was a strong incentive to stick with the stunted symbol-set that the typewriter keyboard allows… Alphabets were concocted with the ampersand, at-sign, asterisk, dollar and per cent signs, various punctuation marks and even some of the numerals doing double duty as letters. They were ‘practical’ for the typist, but the end result was an orthographic cartoon. These spelling systems suggested that Native Americans spoke unwritable, unpronounceable, and laughably unsophisticated languages.”
Bringhurst uses this argument to justify the alphabet he developed for transcribing Haida, which relies on doubling letters and various diacritics to do the job.
Just an interesting extension to your argument that we all know what the symbols connote even though we don’t know what letters they represent.
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What was the interview-sinking pun?