The obscenicons vs. the grawlixes

Comment from “Nosey” on my “Country obscenicons” posting:

August 1, 2010
While “obscenicons” is also correct, the more-widely-used term for these is “grawlixes” (which also happens to be my favorite child-friendly profanity).

Obscenicon is a portmanteau of obscenity and icon ‘symbol’, introduced by Ben Zimmer in 2006 in “Obscenicons in the workplace” (here) as an improvement on cursing character. It was invented as a technical term in linguistics — well, that tiny part of linguistics that concerns itself with devices for taboo avoidance in print.

“Nosey” notes, correctly, that uses of grawlix — a light-hearted technical term (apparently a “blurb word”, a word — like blurb — entirely invented, rather than built on existing words) in cartoonists’ jargon — exceed (by several orders of magnitude, in fact) uses of obscenicon. “Nosey” allows for obscenicon as a correct usage, but by citing the difference in frequency of use, hints that grawlix is more correct and gently suggests implicitly that it would have been better for me to use grawlix.

I’ve taken this tour before, a couple of years ago, and while I have nothing against the grawlix route, I still prefer to go the obscenicon way.

When I posted “Seven words you can’t say in a cartoon” on Language Log back in 2008 (here), I got e-mail telling me that my use of obscenicon was just flat wrong: grawlix had both historical precedence and the weight of numbers on its side, so obscenicon was an unneeded and unwanted innovation. Ben should have searched the literature on glyphs (of all kinds) to see if any group of specialists had already devised a term covering the type of glyph he was talking about, before impulsively rushing ahead and devising one of his own.

You’ll recognize the implicit appeal to One Right Way — we have to choose one variant over the other as the “correct” one, since variation is bad and should be eliminated — and the parallel to other usage controversies (over lexical, morphological, and syntactic variation), in which historical precedence and majority rule are wielded against innovations. I reject all of these premises — One Right Way, Originalism, and Majoritarianism — as general principles that should govern usage, and in addition deplore the disregard for sociocultural contexts of usage that attends the three premises.

Some of my critics were a bit more measured. Here’s my 7/25/08 response to one of them:

Gwillim Law: “There’s already a word for what you’re calling obscenicons. It’s grawlixes, attested since 1964. To my observation it seems to be pretty well known in the cartooning community.”

“Grawlix” does indeed seem to be used in the cartooning community, but not always in this very general sense. As I noted here, one fonts site uses “grawlix” for a particular spiral thingy, and Mort Walker’s Lexicon of Comicana uses it for squiggly glyphs representing “ostensibly obliterated epithets”. These sources give various other obscenicons: jarns, quimps, nittles, and squeans. And, of course, various ordinary punctuation marks also serve as obscenicons, as we’ve noted several times on Language Log.

GL: “It gets a lot more ghits than obscenicons, 3,626 to 47 counting both singular and plural.”

Well, of course it does: “grawlix” was coined (by Mort Walker) some time ago (1964), the more transparent “obscenicon” much more recently. Apparently, Walker’s original usage was the general one — except that it referred to strings of glyphs, rather than to individual glyphs. By 1980 (the Lexicon) Walker had specialized the meaning of “grawlix” in two ways (and treated obscenicons in general under the heading “maladicta”).

All of this is somewhat beside the point. There is nothing wrong with different communities using somewhat different terminology. Often people have reasons for favoring particular terms over alternatives. All that’s required is that the meaning be clear in context.

My point about different communities is especially relevant to technical terminology, where different communities develop their own characteristic sets of concepts and accompanying terms, largely in isolation from one another. Yes, the interests of these communities often overlap, so that different conceptual and lexical apparatus will serve as a barrier to communication and productive collaboration, and matters will have to be sorted out by negotiation among the parties concerned.

But the differences, though often vexing (scientists are given to complaining about them), are unavoidable. No one could possibly be on top of all the work that might turn out to be relevant in all the groups that might turn out to have common interests with one another.

In the case of the obscenicons vs. the grawlixes, I don’t see any overlapping territory worth disputing about. Both words are relatively recent coinages of technical terms, in specialized fields that have little to do with one another. And in fact even the older (by about 40 years) grawlix isn’t of sufficiently general use in sufficient numbers to have made it into any of the general dictionaries of English — though after this web discussion, it might get there, and maybe eventually obscenicon too.

3 Responses to “The obscenicons vs. the grawlixes”

  1. Two obscenicon cartoons « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Obscenicons began as a device in the comics, and cartoons return to them again and again in an assortment of meta-referential ways, using them not merely for ostentatious concealment of taboo vocabulary, but also in play about them. Two recent examples, from Zits and Bizarro: […]

  2. Don Moyer Says:

    Arnold, Whether you call it a grawlix or obscenicon, you might be interested in my latest Kickstarter project…

  3. You bet your asterisk! – Strong Language Says:

    […] in conjunction with other punctuation, could represent profanity (Ben Zimmer coined the term obscenicon for this […]

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