March 21, 2008

Reading the ampersand comics!

Where did the dog Satchel learn to swear by naming curseword characters (a.k.a. obscenicons)?  In today's Get Fuzzy, Satchel explains:

Two pieces of mail on obscenicons, prompted by yesterday's posting.

1.  Unclaricons.  First, from Gavin MacDonald

I live in Japan, and I recently watched a load of Heroes episodes (it's a popular drama from the US), not only partly because I was interested in how the Japanese characters were being portrayed in this so popular TV drama. One of the catch phrases the main Japanese character [named Hiro -- AMZ] uses is 大ピンチ dai-pinchi (comes from English "to be in a pinch"), which to him at least is an interjection of the "oh crap" sort. As you would expect, it is translated variously as "I knew this was a bad idea..." and whatever  fits into the surrounding English dialog nicely, but at one point ... he's running away from some samurai and the subtitles showed something like @#$%!, obviously hoping to give English viewers the impression that he swore. On Japanese television, gobbledy-gook characters like that usually imply... gobbledy-gook, language that can't be understood because someone's mouth is full or they're talking too fast. It took me few seconds to calibrate myself because to me it was perfectly clear what he had said, and I couldn't figure out how the English editors would know about Japanese style subtitles... yeah so that's it. Just a little malfunction in the code-switching area of my brain.

The first point here is that the use of these punctuation marks as obscenicons is a CONVENTION, however natural it might seem to many people.  In other places and at other times, the characters might have no function beyond their conventional uses as punctuation marks (whatever these are in those contexts), or they might have a quite different subsidiary function, as is apparently the case on Japanese television these days.

It's an interesting question when and in what context these conventions for the use of punctuation marks (as obscenicons in writing in English, as "unclaricons" on Japanese television) arose.  The history of the non-punctuational obscenicons in comics is also interesting.  I know nothing about these topics and probably won't take up researching them -- my plate is already overfull -- but the history of cultural practices is almost always worth investigating.

[A side matter: the choice of punctuation marks that have been pressed into service as obscenicons.  Little punctuation marks (the period, comma, apostrophe, single quote, double quote, hyphen, etc.) are presumably unsuitable because they're too puny to convey strong emotion, and delimiters (parens ( ), (square) brackets [ ], (curly) braces { }, angle brackets < >, slash /, backslash \, pipe |) are presumably unsuitable because their delimiting function is so prominent and they otherwise lack meaning.  On the other hand, the exclamation point ! and question mark ? are especially SUITABLE because of the meanings they can convey.  Plus the asterisk *, because it's used in taboo avoidance and to call attention to material.  That leaves @ # $ % & + =.  I have at the moment no obscenicon uses of =, but + does occur, as in this rendition (in a discussion of swearing by comic book characters) of "Fuck this shit":

#?&+ this $#!+, says the Bendis Board.  (link)

Addendum 3/22/08: Several people have written to point out that $#!+ is surely a recoding of SHIT using punctuation marks to stand for visually similar letters.  So + is probably marginal at best as an obscenicon.]

In any case, ! ? * @ # $ % & seem to be the characters most commonly used in the U.S. (I suppose £ and € get some play outside the U.S.)  At the moment I have no idea about why = is out of the game.]

MacDonald's note brings up another topic I know almost nothing about, namely the taxonomy of unclarities and incomprehensibilities in language.  Ordinary English has the words gobbledygook (variously spelled) and gibberish, each with several (partially overlapping) meanings -- see the Wikipedia entries here and here -- but no word specifically for material that is unclear or incomprehensible on
phonetic grounds (because of mumbling, softness of speech, speed of speech, drunkenness, food in the mouth, etc.), and we have no conventions for representing such material in writing, that is, no unclaricons.

2.  Misplaced obscenicon.  Then, from Robert Hay, a note about the website, "dedicated to picking apart and ridiculing bad sports journalism", which reported last year on a bizarrely misplaced obscenicon:

Reader Lazarus sends us to's Power Rankings, where we find this gem:

Joe Torre met with George Steinbrenner for a nice lunch in Tampa the other day, and I'm sure at some point the subject probably turned to the Yankees. And George, I'd bet, at some point looked at his manager and said, "#$!&@* the heck?"

I assume they meant to write: "What the #$!&@*?" But they didn't. They wrote "#$!&@* the heck?"

Or, presumably: "Fuck the heck?"

Hay adds that

"Fuck the heck" has since become a regularly used expression of confusion on the site.


Posted by Arnold Zwicky at March 21, 2008 01:06 PM