After . . . whatever might have happened recently, you might find yourself wanting to use foul language, even in print. But, thoughtful and level-headed editor that you are, you can control yourself enough to leave those f-bombs, s-holes, and other FCC no-nos out of your text. Instead, you might want to adopt a common comic-book convention and replace those obscenities with a string of random nonalphabetic characters.
Such a string of characters used in place of swear words has a name that you might not know: grawlix.
The word grawlix appears to have been coined by legendary cartoonist Mort Walker in 1964. According to Patricia O’Connor and Stewart Kellerman at the Grammarphobia blog, grawlix originally referred specifically to scribbles and would appear alongside jarns (spirals), quimps (astronomical characters), and nittles (stars). For whatever reason, grawlix stuck and now refers to the entire string of characters.
If you didn’t know the name grawlix, you also might not know that some of the characters that appear in a modern grawlix have names more fascinating than what we normally call them. Bring a bit of class to your next grawlix with these four #%@$ing symbols:
The Lemniscate: The tiny Mobius strip or knocked-over-8 we use to represent an infinite set is commonly called the infinity symbol, but it’s also called the lemniscate. Merriam-Webster reports that the name comes from New Latin lemniscata, the feminine of Latin lemniscatus “with hanging ribbons.”
The Obelus: Known by elementary-school math students far and wide as the division sign, the obelus gets its name from the Greek word for “a spit,” which makes sense when you look at its shape. (But what are they roasting on that spit? A couple of eggs?)
The obelus wasn’t always a math symbol, either: It was once used to mark a manuscript passage suspected of being corrupt or unsupportable.
The Octothorpe: Today, it’s usually called a hash or hashtag. Twenty-five and more years ago, it was called the pound sign and was actually used as a symbol to indicate pounds — as in weight, not British currency. But sometime in the late 1960s, it was bestowed the name octothorpe (or octothorp) by someone associated with Bell Labs, and no one seems to know exactly why.
Etymologists generally agree that the octo- part of the word is a reference to the symbol’s eight points, but the final syllable is a mystery. Theories include the following:
- It was the surname of a specific (and decidedly non-famous) phone company employee who either named it after himself or had the eponym thrust upon him.
- The word was created by a fan of the early-twentieth-century Native American uber-athlete Jim Thorpe.
- It comes from an Old English word for “village.”
The Solidus or Virgule: In the age of computers and the internet, that forward-leaning slash has become indispensable. But who knew it had so many names? We usually call it the slash, but it historically has been known as both the solidus and the virgule. The former, dating back three-quarters of a millennium, comes from the Latin word for “solid.” The latter, from the mid-nineteenth century, stems from the Latin virgula “small stripe” (diminutive of virga “rod”).
From what I’ve found, we don’t have a separate word to describe the backslash, though I have found it described as a reverse virgule or reverse solidus.