Swear Words in Text

Grawlixes, maledicta, and more.

Mignon Fogarty
5-minute read
Episode #170

More About the Grawlix

Back to grawlixes, the symbols are usually the symbols above the numbers on a keyboard, but I've noticed that comics sometimes mix in stars, skull and crossbone symbols, swirls and the like. Also, as far as I can tell, the order or number of symbols used to cover up the swear word is random. A writer on the blog HalfBakery proposed creating a code for assigning specific grawlixes to specific swear words so people could know what the writer intended (3), but I don't think the idea caught on.

Asterisks and Disemvoweling

A slight modification to the grawlix that has caught on is to directly replace some letters in the swear word with asterisks. So instead of just typing random symbols, you replace a swear word with something like f***. That method usually leaves enough information so people can work out what the word is meant to be, but the offensive word isn't actually typed.

It's kind of like the trend on blogs to disemvowel offensive comments. "Disemvowel" is a neologism that means to remove all the vowels from words. Disemvoweling suppresses comments that moderators think are out of line, but in a way so that the posts aren't technically censored because readers can usually work out what the words mean if they try (4).


Finally, here's a bit more trivia: swear words are sometimes called maledicta. "Maledict" is an archaic adjective meaning cursed, which comes from Latin root words meaning "to speak ill" of something. There's a journal about offensive words that goes by the name Maledicta and a book about swear words called Opus Maledictorum.


1. Quinion, M. "Grawlix," World Wide Words. August 23, 2008. http://www.worldwidewords.org/weirdwords/ww-gra1.htm (accessed May 14, 2009).
2. Zwicky, A. "On the Track of the Squean," Language Log. December 20, 2006. http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/003942.html (accessed May 14, 2009).
3. phundug. "Standardized Curse Symbols," Halfbakery. May 19, 2003. http://www.halfbakery.com/idea/Standardized_20curse_20symbols (accessed May 14, 2009).
4. Wikipedia editors. "Disemvowleing," Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Disemvoweling (accessed May 14, 2009).

More Reading
Grawlix --WhatIs.com
A Word for That --Typography Blog


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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