You bet your asterisk!

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.)

“Automate the w*rk out of sales”: San Francisco bus-shelter ad for Workato

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 whole fucking industry? No, the four-letter word is “bank.”

“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.

“For *U*K’s sake Stop Brexit”

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 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.

3 thoughts on “You bet your asterisk!

  1. Patrick Collins February 16, 2021 / 11:17 pm

    The Cilla song comes from the film Work is a Four Letter Word. I would love to get a good copy of it again. David Warner was a man who was trying to find the best way to cultivate various strains of magic mushroom and Cilla played his overly-tolerant girlfriend. One of the classic psychedelic films. It opens on a shot of Warner in his pyjamas and a transparent raincoat following a couple of mounted policemen with a shovel and a bucket.

    The version on youtube is very poor quality.


  2. Martin S Taylor April 18, 2021 / 2:38 pm

    Not quite the same, but in the UK the word ‘shag’ as a common, straightforward, 21st century word for sexual intercourse is very welcome. When someone used it in the prime-time soap ‘The Archers’ there were precisely no complaints.

    So it’s a bit disheartening when people asterise it, as if it were offensive – or possibly with the specific intention of making it into an offensive word.


  3. oasisbob July 27, 2021 / 9:45 pm

    A good example of using asterisks/blanks for comedic effect (as a quasi-dysphemism?) appears in the now-infamous South Park Season 11, episode 1 “With Apologies to Jesse Jackson.” The gag uses a Wheel of Fortune set with a partially completed word, and pushes a character to say a very offensive word when he can’t think of something more innocuous.


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