What the @#$%&! Is a Grawlix?

grawlix
(CSA Images/Snapstock/Getty Images)

The term grawlix refers to the series of typographical symbols (such as @#$%&!) used in cartoons and comic strips to represent swear words. Plural: grawlixes

Also known as jarns, nittles, and obscenicons, grawlixes usually appear in maledicta balloons alongside the comic characters who are uttering the oaths.

The term grawlix was introduced by American comic artist Mort Walker (creator of Beetle Bailey) in the article "Let's Get Down to Grawlixes" (1964) and revisited in his book The Lexicon of Comicana (1980).

Examples and Observations

  • "It started out as a joke for the National Cartoonists Society magazine. I spoofed the tricks cartoonists use, like dust clouds when characters are running or lightbulbs over their heads when they get an idea. My son Brian thought I should expand the idea and make a book of it. I spent many hours at the museum going over old cartoons and recording their 'language.' I created pseudoscientific names for each cartoon cliché, like the sweat marks cartoon characters radiate. I called them 'plewds,' after the god of rain, 'Joe Pluvius.' I considered it a humor book. When it came out, I looked for it in the humor section of a bookstore and finally found it in Art Instruction. I inquired and they said, 'What's funny about it?' I said, 'The names.' They said, 'We didn't know what those things were called.' I said, 'They weren't called anything till I called them that.' It was another case of satire falling flat. I gave up and am selling it now as an instruction book."
    (Mort Walker, Mort Walker's Private Scrapbook. Andrews McMeel, 2000)

     
  • How to Create a Grawlix
    "The symbols that work best [for grawlixes] are those that fill up space: @, #, $, %, and &. Hyphens, plus signs, asterisks, and carets (^) leave too much white space within the body of the grawlix for it to look like a single word. Wiktionary recommends @#$%& as the standard grawlix. This uses the five beefiest symbols in the order they appear on an American keyboard. (If you curse with a British accent, try @#£%&.) . . . Because it represents words spoken in anger or excitement, the grawlix should always end with an exclamation mark, even if it's an interrogative grawlix: @#$%&?! Finally, as a word of caution, you should reserve your use of grawlixes for emails to close friends. Grawlixes are highly inappropriate for professional writing."
    (Bill Schmalz, The Architects Guide to Writing: For Design and Construction Professionals. Images, 2014)
     
  • Comic Symbols
    "Cartoonist Mort Drucker [sic] invented an entire lexicon to describe such symbols.

    "'Emanata' are lines drawn around the head to indicate shock or surprise. 'Grawlixes' are those typographical symbols that stand for profanities. 'Agitrons' are wiggly lines around a character to indicate shaking. 'Plewds' are sweat drops that convey worry. 'Squeans' are tiny starbursts or circles that represent intoxication or dizziness. 'Solrads' are lines that radiate from a light bulb or the sun to indicate luminosity. And so on. A language all its own."
    (Shirrel Rhoades, Comic Books: How the Industry Works. Peter Lang, 2008)
     
  • Squeans, Spurls, Crottles, and More
    "Other symbols reveal the mental or physical state of a character, such as squeans (the centerless asterisk-like burst marks in the air around the head of a drunk), spurls (the corkscrew line above a character who is passing out), crottles (the crosses on the eyes of someone out cold), or plewds (the teardrop-shaped indicators of sweat and/or stress)--these last classified by Mort Walker, creator of the long-running Beetle Bailey comic strip, as a subcategory of what he calls emanata, along with the waftarom (the doubled curved line emanating from savory food) and the solrads and indotherms (wavy lines indicating that the sun or other object is radiating heat . . .)."
    (Alexander Humez, Nicholas Humez, and Rob Flynn, Short Cuts: A Guide to Oaths, Ring Tones, Ransom Notes, Famous Last Words, & Other Forms of Minimalist Communication. Oxford Univ. Press, 2010)