Swear Words in Text

Grawlixes, maledicta, and more.

Mignon Fogarty
5-minute read
Episode #170

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.


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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