A little over two years ago I was flummoxed by someone’s attempt to indicate profanity using an odd string of substitute characters on the keyboard. I decided to write a blog post about it, and about the “proper” ways one can use symbols to replace curse words in print.
It has, to date, been the most popular blog post I have ever written. It still gets dozens of hits every day, even two years later. And while it’s good for my overall stats, it’s a little depressing.
Recently I saw an upswing in visits and casually noted a number of them were redirects from another person’s blog (at this point, with my link back to his post that links back to mine we are in serious logrolling territory). Curiosity sent me to fanboy.com and I’m glad I did because I got me some schooling in the process.
First, that chicken scratch that’s used to fill in for curse words, those are called grawlixes. And there’s quite a history of them stretching back to the early days of comic strips. I had assumed these symbols had a name but two years ago I was more interested in getting my complaints off my chest than doing the necessary research to find this out. I also learned that the word for the beads of sweat that shoot away from a character in surprise or embarrassment are called plewds. Or rather, I relearned this word, because I had come across it decades ago but in my mind it had mutated to the word ploids, which have been co-opted by the Frito-Lay people as their trademarked name for proof-0f-purchase tokens to be exchanged for worthless gifts. I’m happy to be corrected, knowing that the proud plewd has not been subsumed by a corporate entity.
Interesting is how various strands of the universe intersect. Okay, so maybe its the strands of the internet interconnecting, but same diff. This morning my wife was reading a review of the new William Shatner TV show Stuff My Dad Says, based on the book Sh*t My Dad Says, which was based on the Tweets by Justin Halpern from an account called shitmydadsays. You can spend days on the internet reading all the outrage over the numbing-down of the title, about people shocked by such profanity being “introduced” to mainstream culture, about how the entire concept jumped the shark before the book even came out, and yet another rasher of anger over censorship. All this fuss and bother over a word. And to top it off, the critic gave the TV show a D- grade.
But what does it mean when we replace a profanity with symbols and scrawl? When we make the choice to replace a word generally understood to be profane, are we not bowing just a little toward censorship? It used to be such language, even symbolically, was seen as outrageous, a sign of bad character and questionable morals. Now even the most genteel librarians unabashedly speak fluent potty mouth without once begging us to pardon their French. If we read these grawlixes and can make out their true meaning, why do we continue to pretend that we are somehow keeping our language elevated from the vulgar and profane?
I will admit, the use of grawlixes is a more elegant solution than placing self-censored language on “word” lists. You know, the n-word, the f-word, or like little kids on the playground who feel empowered doing so, the s-word. As is “the s-word my dad says.”
That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it, this power we invest in certain words. We elevate certain bits of our language by making them unspeakable, like the name of God, invest them with talismanic powers to shock, offend, represent darker ideas. I suspect we prefer to limit their use in order to retain that power, to prevent the words from becoming commonplace. If four-year-olds use and aren’t afraid to use certain words, then over time they cease to retain their power, and the power of their meaning is lost.
Form all this you might assume I’d support The Parents Television Council ( and their Orwellian “Because Our Children Are Watching”) and their pressuring CBS to change the title of their doomed sitcom to Stuff My Dad Says, but you’d be wrong. Changing the title and toning down the father character removed the power and the humor inherent in the premise. Like watching Betty White on Saturday Night Live delivering sexual double entendres, the whole point of SMDS is that it’s outrageous. It’s about what Justin Halpern’s dad says and how he says it. Take that away and you have nothing left. Take away the language and you have removed the power of the humor.
So let’s keep the grawlixes in place when their intent is humorous, but lets use the actual words themselves when they are culturally significant. In a YA novel, let the profanity rip where it would be natural for teens exploring the limits of language (and sex and everything else) takes them into the territory of overuse. Let’s remain sensitive to words that have been used historically – racial slurs and epithets – so that we don’t accidentally re-empower the hatreds that created them. And lets not go around assuming that everything on television is meant for every member of the house. The audience for shitmydadsays is/was mature adult children dealing with coming to terms with their elderly parents. The only way the TV show could have reflected that was to hold true to the Tweets that inspired it.
The sacred and the profane are the two sides to the same coin. Like Yin and Yang, they require each other to maintain balance. You need the one in equal measure to recognize the other.