December 20, 2006

On the track of the squean

Until yesterday, one item from the Zits list of activities unsuitable at a school dance had still not been tracked down anywhere: squeaning.  Then Keith Handley found the squean on a fonts website, where a comic-book style font (called MarkerMan) is being distributed that

Includes 5 useful cartoon symbols, leaned from Mort Walker's Lexicon of Comicana and ABC Etcetera: The Life & Times of the Roman Alphabet by A. & N. Humez. From left to right of the bottom row above: the squean (which might float around a drunken character's head)...

The squean is an asterisk with an empty center.

("Leaned from" puzzles me.  "Learned from"?  "Loaned from"?  "Gleaned from"?  Or what?)

There's also the phosphene, for a character who's "seeing stars", and three substitutes for swearing -- the grawlix, the jarn, and the quimp -- which can be used on their own or combined with one another and with standard symbols like @#$%*.  (The grawlix, a spiral, figures prominently in a "Mother Goose & Grimm" comic strip that Ben Zimmer posted about a while back: "Grimm just said the {grawlix}-word.")

The labels are presumably inventions of Walker's.  The Amazon book description tells us:

Written as a satire on the comic devices cartoonists use, the book quickly became a textbook for art students. Walker researched cartoons around the world to collect this international set of cartoon symbols. The names he invented for them now appear in dictionaries.

[Addendum: Dick Margulis writes to say that phosphenes are the "stars" you see when you close your eyes and press against the lids, and the OED pretty much agrees with this.  So this one isn't an invention.]

Handley speculates that the Zits cartoonists borrowed the comics term to fill out their list of teen activities.  He also wonders if knurling (also on the list) might be used by cartoonists to refer to a kind of cross-hatching.  I'm on the case.

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at December 20, 2006 12:29 PM