Annals of taboo avoidance: the white rectangle of modesty

Cartoonist Keith Knight (under the name Keef), in his K Chronicles of April 27, uses a scheme for avoiding taboo words that was new to me:

(Thanks to Ben Zimmer for an improved image of the strip.)

The strip was circulated under the title “Sh_tless Babies”, which uses the common technique of an avoidance character (here, the underscore) in place of a letter. The strip itself uses a technique borrowed from visual modesty — the white rectangle superimposed on the offending material, which in the case of visual images is the “naughty bits” of the body (women’s breasts, both sexes’ genitalia).

Here the white rectangle of modesty covers not only the letter I, but the sequence IT. All is not hidden, however; Keef has left the dot on the I and the top part of the T peeking over the top of the rectangle, rather like bits of suggestive pubic hair (most clearly the last time through, in “No shit, Sherlock!!”).

7 Responses to “Annals of taboo avoidance: the white rectangle of modesty”

  1. xyzzyva Says:

    Isn’t it usually a black bar, not a white one?

  2. David W. Fenton Says:

    And, increasingly, it’s used on buttocks, which just seems ridiculous to me. Even on cartoons (though I’m not certain that when the Simpsons does it it’s not intended as satire).

  3. arnoldzwicky Says:

    To xyzzyva: yes, it’s most commonly a black bar. I don’t know its history, but it might have its origin in the censor’s blacking out of redacted material. To some, the black box suggests shame, as in a “black mark” against someone.

    The white box works much better in a small black-and-white cartoon format. And suggests modesty.

    The now-standard PROHIBITED symbol, a red backslash in a red circle, won’t do because it doesn’t conceal.

  4. arnoldzwicky Says:

    To David Fenton: oh dear, buttocks out too! Yet you can send images of buttocks through the U.S. mail. And frontal nudity is often avoided by having the subjects facing away from the camera (thus exposing the buttocks, but nothing else).

  5. arnoldzwicky Says:

    Still another use of the black bar/box: over the eyes, to conceal the identity of the subject.

  6. Neal Goldfarb Says:

    The white rectangle look like a piece of correction tape that someone stuck onto the panel.

  7. irrationalpoint Says:

    And, increasingly, it’s used on buttocks, which just seems ridiculous to me.”

    Yet you can send images of buttocks through the U.S. mail. And frontal nudity is often avoided by having the subjects facing away from the camera (thus exposing the buttocks, but nothing else).

    It does seem rather heterocentric that this is the case. Buttocks are less overtly sexual than other parts of the anatomy according to…who? (Note that I’m not advocating censoring them, just remarking on what seems like a double standard.)

    –IP

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