June 10, 2006

The history of typographical bleeping

A few days ago, I wondered in passing about the origins of typographical bleeping, in which asterisks or hyphens or underscores are substituted for certain letters in order to avoid violating lexical taboos. Greg Hanneman emailed an example from 1869, and this caused me to do a small search that pushed it back to 1688 1680. No doubt some readers will be able to push it back further.

Greg's example:

My 10th-grade English textbook included Bret Hart's "Outcasts of Poker Flat," in which the word "damned" appeared as "d----d."  As I recall, a footnote claimed that "Hart himself omitted the expletive."  If that's correct, then this would date the use of typographical bleeping to at least 1869, which is the date I can find on the Internet for the publication of Hart's story in Overland Monthly.

I do have a copy of "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" in a 1953 edition of "An Anthology of Famous American Stories," edited by Angus Burrell and Bennett Cerf.  The passage in question is on page 331:

The Innocent was holding forth, apparently with equal effect, to Mr. Oakhurst and Mother Shipton, who was actually relaxing into amiability.  "Is this yer a d----d picnic?" said Uncle Billy, with inward scorn, as he surveyed the sylvan group, the glancing fire-light, and the tethered animals in the foreground.

I tried searching LION (LIterature ONline) for "d____d" and similar patterns, and found Richard Ames, "A Satyr Again Man", from Sylvia's Revenge, dated 1688. A few hundred lines into the poem, Ames is complaining about bullies:

314 Bully how great i'th' Mouth the Accent sounds;
315 Bully who nothing breaths but Bl---d and W--nds?

Note that the hyphens seem to match the missing letters in the case of "wounds" but not "blood". Also, although "blood" and "wounds" are here typo-bleeped, as oaths violating the commandment against taking the Lord's name in vain, Ames and his printer find no problem with the same words in other uses, as in these couplets from the same poem:

49 A Spirit of Air and Flame may be withstood,
50 But who can shun a Divel of flesh and blood?

69 We cannot tell---but one at last is found,
70 Whose Charms the Heart of young Philander wound

The same distinction is made for words like "God" and "damn", which are written normally when used as ordinary nouns and verbs:

45 Man, must I than the hated Name rehearse,
46 Lord! how it stains my Ink and spoils my Verse,
47 Man by some angry God in passion hurl'd
48 Down, as a Plague to vex the Female World.

318 More Oaths and Curses not the Damned Vent,
319 Than from the Bullyes Brimstone-Lungs are sent.

but are bleeped when used in oaths:

320 The Divel himself is all amaz'd to see,
321 A wretch more impiously bold then hee;
322 He for one daring Act was sent to Hell,
323 But th'others loud G---d D---me's who can tell?

329 Sr. Fright-all lowers his Top-sail to your hand.
330 Your Pardon Sr. sayes he, I must request,
331 By G--- I thought you'd understood a jest,

Note that in these cases, three hyphens are always used, regardless of the number of missing letters, suggesting that the two hyphens in "W--nds" may have been a typo, but in any case didn't represent a pattern of consistent letter-for-letter substitution. (Perhaps three hyphens is an representation of an original m-dash? That would be odd, given LION's otherwise religious representation of original spelling and other typographical quirks, but perhaps there is an editorial policy against —?)

Through the last decade of the 17th century, and into the 18th, typographical bleeping of (religiously) taboo oaths is easy to find. In some cases, it seems as if the substitution (typically of hyphens) is letter-for-letter, e.g. Nicholas Amhurst, "Warning to young married Men" [from Poems on Several Occasions, 1723]:

13 No more as once he charm'd her list'ning Ear,
14 Call'd her no more, my Honey, and my Dear;
15 But daily, from his Work, returning Home,
16 With dreadful Oaths and Curses shook the Room;
17 To ev'ry humble Question he'd reply,
18 You saucy B-tch, G-d d--n you, what care I?

The above is also the earliest example that I've found where a word is typo-bleeped that isn't part of a religiously forbidden oath or curse. [If anyone finds earlier relevant examples, please let me know.]

Another passage by the same author provides a particularly nice example of the distinction between a quoted curse (where "damn" is bleeped) and a described curse (where "damns" is not) -- Nicholas Amhurst, "Upon Parties" from Poems on Several Occasions, 1723:

38 The Tory with his sworn Opinions big,
39 Glows with hot Zeal, and cries G-d d--n the Whig;
40 The Whig, of his Perswasion full as vain,
41 Damns the vile Tory, in as proud a Strain;

This distinction is still fitfully made, by those who typo-bleep words like "damn", but no such distinction exists for the assorted taboo words for sexual acts, bodily wastes and the like: here it's not the speech act that's taboo, but the word itself.

The earliest example of typo-bleeping scatology that I've found is James Robertson's poem "Alexander the Great", from Poems on Several Occasions, 1773 (and what's with that title, anyhow?):

1 As Alexander (all the World subdu'd)
2 Amid a throng of circling courtiers stood,
3 "In Me, he cry'd, Great Ammon's offspring view,
4 "To mighty Jove my origin is due;
5 "Let favour'd monarchs swell young Ammon's train,
6 "My father's viceroy, god-like, here I reign;
7 "Whate'er I will's the will of mighty Jove,
8 "On Earth I rule, as he commands above."
9 He spoke:---Adoring courtiers prostrate lay,
10 When a poor Crow whom chance had brought that way,
11 As high in air he o'er the monarch sped,
12 Croak'd loud disdain---and sh-t upon his head.

[Oops, as I just remembered, I myself cited a scatological typo-bleeping from 1680, in a post from August of 2005. I'll leave in the Robertson poem, worthwhile in itself, but here's the earlier passage:

22 Vile Sot! who clapt with Poetry art sick,
23 And void'st Corruption, like a Shanker'd Prick.
24 Like Ulcers, thy impostum'd Addle Brains,
25 Drop out in Matter, which thy Paper stains:
26 Whence nauseous Rhymes, by filthy Births proceed,
27 As Maggots, in some T---rd, ingendring breed.

The author is John Oldham, and the work's title is "Upon the Author of a Play call'd Sodom". I wonder if it means something that he chose to bleep "turd" but not "prick". ]

[Update -- Michael Greenberg writes:

The oldest example I can think of typographical bleeping goes back to Ancient Egyptian. It comes in two forms, the first of which is (presumably) oldest.

1) Mangling of symbols for protection. In the Pyramid Texts of the 6th Dynasty (around 2200 BCE), certain animal characters would appear mangled, e.g. snakes appear without heads and with knives through them. These texts were spells for use by the deceased in the afterlife; mangling potentially harmful characters would help protect the user.

2) Overwriting of other pharoah's names. Ramses II was a big practicer of this in the 18th Dynasty (around 1400 BCE), but it went on before.

In both cases, defacing the written word weakens its power; in one case, it is to protect the reader, while in another it is to efface the intent of the original writer.

I agree that the first practice ("mangling for protection") seems similar in spirit to typographical bleeping. The second one (overwriting names) seems further away, at least to me.

Several readers also pointed out the obvious connection to the history of methods for avoiding pronuncation of the tetragrammaton. As far as I know, though, the traditional techniques in this case did not include replacing certain letters with graphemic wildcards. ]

[Update: the earliest bleeped F-word, here.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at June 10, 2006 01:06 PM