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Swear Words in Text

Grawlixes, maledicta, and more.

By
Mignon Fogarty
5-minute read
Episode #170

Today's show is still work-safe and family-friendly, but we're going to talk about how to deal with swearing in novels, quotations, and other types of text.

My friend Scott Sigler and I were talking about his new book, The Rookie, the other day, and he mentioned that he had to do a lot of extra work because of the swearing in it, which made me start thinking about swearing in general

Here's what happened.

Writing Out the Swearing

The Rookie is a wild book about a pro football league 700 years in the future. Scott describes it as Any Given Sunday meets The Godfather meets Star Wars. So, as you can imagine, language among such characters isn't always as pure as the driven snow.

Scott gave away The Rookie as a free podcast with adult language, and then edited it to create a young adult version to sell as a hardcover book and iPhone app. He had to modify language to fit a young adult audience, yet still keep the story integrity and intensity. 

Sometimes he was able to just drop the offensive word and the paragraph kept its punch and meaning. I'll read a little bit of it, so you can hear it in context.

Here's one section before editing:

"They can’t handle being in the same cities with the aliens, being on the same buses, shuttles and transport tubes. I mean, have you ever seen a Sklorno up close?” Stedmar’s face wrinkled with disgust. “You can see right through their skin. And they drool. It’s a big [bleeping] adjustment.”

In that case, it's pretty easy to just take out the expletive:

"You can see right through their skin. And they drool. It’s a big adjustment.”

Other times, you can't just drop the expletive, you need to replace it to communicate the same intensity, anger, or disgust. Again, I'll read it all the way through first so you can hear it in context.

Here's a section before editing:

It was too much to bear. Quentin turned and stormed away, heading out of the landing bay and back to his room. Help? From a [bleepe unholy Sklorno? As if Quentin were some bush league quarterback who needed to work on his [bleep] route passing? [Bleeping] Pine. He’d show that [bleep]; one way or another, he’d show him!

Now, listen to the rewrite. Scott took out a bunch of the cursing, but also replaced [bleep] with "jerk."

Help? From an unholy Sklorno? As if Quentin were some bush league quarterback who needed to work on his route passing? Pine. He’d show that jerk, one way or another, he’d show him!

Replacement Words

There are all sorts of replacement words for swear words that range in their own level of offensivness. "Jerk" is a pretty mild thing to call someone compared with some of the other options. "Heck" and "gosh" are mild replacements to keep people from using religious words in vain. Some people might find certain replacements for the f-word sightly more offensive, words like "freaking," "friggin'," and "effing." I always find it really funny when science fiction shows make up new "futuristic" swear words like "frak" and "frell."

The Grawlix

So those are two ways to get rid of potentially offensive language: just take it out or use a milder replacement. But there are also other ways way to deal with it in less formal print. One is to use a string of characters like they often do in comics. When a comic book character swears, you read something like asterisk, dollar, hash, percent, exclamation mark (*$#%!).

And believe it or not, there's actually a name for that string of characters. In 1964, a cartoonist named Mort Walker named them grawlix. At least that's the word that caught on. He initially named four different ways of representing swear words: grawlixes, jarns, quimps, and nittles (1). In his first notation, the grawlix may just be a swirl symbol (2), one of a few symbols for denoting a swear word; but as far as I can tell, grawlix is the term most people use today to refer to the entire string of symbols.

Implied Swearing

Grawlixes are often read out loud as "bleep." For example, in 2004 there was a movie with a grawlix in the name and it became known as "What the [Bleep] Do We Know?" Although I couldn't find proof, I have a theory that using the word "bleep" to indicate a swear word came about after radio stations starting playing a "beep" over swear words to obscure them.

I may be unusual, but I don't read grawlixes as bleeps, I read them as funny words like "brickinbrackin." The cartoon character Yosemite Sam was the king of those kind of implied swear words. He was always saying things like "yassin sassin snazzum frazzum" and "Come outta there, you blabber-spat-nazzed trap!" Those are another option when you want to imply swearing without actually swearing.

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About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.

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