March 20, 2008

Spiral thingy lightning bolt!

In the cartoon Get Fuzzy, the dog Satchel has taken to swearing by "saying the cartoon-style swear squiggles" (as the human character Rob puts it). 

While we've looked a lot at "taboo avoidance characters", used to mask individual letters in taboo words, we've touched much less often on "cursing characters" (as Ben Zimmer referred to them here; a bit later he referred to them as "obscenicons"), those "cartoon-style swear squiggles" used individually or in clusters -- What the #$*! Do We Know!? -- as visual substitutes for taboo words as wholes.  (But see here, here, and here.)  Now Satchel has taken things one step further, by using the names of cursing characters in speech (as in a Foxtrot strip Mark Liberman riffed on a few years ago).

Four strips so far, 3/17 through 3/20, beginning with Satchel stubbing his toe on a brick strategically placed in his way by the cat Bucky:

We get characters available on (some) standard keyboards: asterisk *, ampersand &, plus sign +, percentage sign %, dollar sign $, British pound £, euro €.  Plus the Greek letter pi π.  And some cartoonists' glyphs that don't have HTML character codes: popping bubble, spiral thingy (the grawlix, mentioned here), lightning bolt, and star (distinct from ampersand).

In general, uses of cursing characters can't be uniquely interpreted as particular taboo words, and that's true here, though "ampersand" of "ampersand straight" is surely "damned", damned straight 'absolutely right' being an American idiom of fixed form.  ("Dollar sign-A" would be equally interpretable as "fuckin'-A", fuckin'-A being yet another American idiom for 'absolutely right', also of fixed form.)  The fact that specific taboo words aren't usually recoverable from cursing characters makes these characters more decorous than the coding of taboo words via avoidance characters; #$*! or "dollar sign" could represent a number of curses, from the mild (hell) to the strong (fuck) -- which ones are available depends on the context -- but f**k leaves almost nothing to the imagination.

Spiral thingy lightning bolt!

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at March 20, 2008 09:56 AM