It’s a hard-knock life for advertisers looking to titillate buyers into paying attention. Back in the day—say, 2018—you were guaranteed to provoke when you used asshole to sell your bidet or dropped a barely acceptable AF onto a package to give your wipes a boost. Now, though, commercial swears are so common that you can name your candles Pretend to Give a Shit and get away with it—even at the US Patent and Trademark Office.
When the old swears no longer shock, what’s an advertiser to do? One answer: swear-ify inoffensive words by inserting asterisks into them.
Exhibit A: an outdoor ad from Workato, a Silicon Valley software company. The asterisks imply that you regard work as a curse. (See “Work Is a Four-Letter Word” by Cilla Black, later covered by The Smiths.)
Exhibit B: Karen Conlin of Grammargeddon alerted me to a new product from Wave, a Toronto-based company that specializes in small-business financing. Just don’t call it a b**k.
“The censored oath is throughout their site and is dynamic in places, changing from the asterisk version to the full word,” Karen wrote. “Quite clever, I thought.”
Exhibit C: Strong Language colleague Ben Zimmer forwarded this undated anti-Brexit protest sign.
Here the asterisks add letters rather than replacing them.
The use of typographical symbols to censor offensive words goes back centuries; the earliest examples, from the 1600s, use the dash, “the most visually boring of the symbols,” as Dictionary.com puts it. Asterisks were popularized in early comic strips, where strings of them, sometimes in conjunction with other punctuation, could represent profanity (Ben Zimmer coined the term obscenicon for this usage).
There are rules for inserting asterisks into swears, although they’re fluid and often ignored. According to a 2011 post on English.StackExchange, “Standard practice is to substitute asterisk when replacing just some letters (especially vowels, and not normally the first or last letter) in a swear-word (for example – ‘sh*t’, or ‘c**t’).” It gets tricky with longer words: Is b******s bollocks or bastards?
Have you seen any advertisements that transform fair words into foul by means of asterisk-substitution? Let us know in a comment.