Daily Archives: July 7, 2011


You know those symbols cartoonists use for swearwords – the squiggly lines, the punctuation marks, the stars and skulls and mushroom clouds and so on? Perhaps the sort of thing Hagar the Horrible would emit if he found crawlies in his gravlax? Or what Sarge growls at Beetle for being lax? Have you ever thought, “There has to be a name for these things”?

Well, Mort Walker did. And, not being aware of one per se, he made up one.

Well, OK, he made up several, according to type, along with names for various other marks one sees in cartoons (surrounding a character’s head to denote surprise or anxiety, for instance). The words were, by all evidences, made up off the top of his head because he liked the sound of them: blurgits, briffits, jarns, quimps, nittles… They didn’t fall instantly into the dustbin of history; their creator was, after all, Mort Walker, creator of Beetle Bailey and Hi and Lois, and he published a book (The Lexicon of Comicana) detailing them. But the one that has really caught on is the one that, starting as a word for an incoherent squiggle, has come to refer to all kinds of marks indicating profanity: grawlix, plural grawlixes.

It does seem like an apposite word, doesn’t it? It has such suitable flavours: the gripping, growling /gr/ onset, and the overtones of growl, craw, curl, raw, rail, licks, garlic, warlocks, prolix, and scrawl, among others, plus the suitable shapes: the crossing-out of x, the open jaw or curling intestine of g (depending on how it’s written), the w that may be like an accordion from Hell or just may be two more x’s waiting to be formed, the l like a line of surprise on a cartoon character’s head, the i like an inverted exclamation mark.

Some people have imagined that words in general at first came about through just this kind of creation: give it a name because it sounds right. But, while we obviously have various words that have been created that way, we have to stop and ask, “What makes it sound right?”

In the case of a word such as this one, there is very likely influence of other known words and sound patterns in English, plus attitudes towards such things as the letter x. But you can’t have any of that until you have a well-established language and culture. If you’re a proto-human looking for a word to name something that doesn’t have a word, what do you do? Make a word on the basis of other words you already have for resemblant things? What if you have none such? Make a word on the basis of sound resemblances (onomatopoeia)? What it it’s a big rock? Make it on the basis of sensed appropriateness for size and similar qualities (based on experience of high sounds going with smaller size, etc.)? Go with something that you somehow remember from your own formative experiences? Was there really any first person who just made up language, or did it just slowly grow over generations from something not quite language to something fully language?

Well, probably that last one, but, really, we have no #@%& idea. All we know is we’re here, now, and we have the linguistic and cultural accretions to produce and appreciate a word like grawlix.

Thanks to Adrienne Montgomerie for mentioning this word on Twitter today.

Follow me on Twitter if you want (or don’t if you don’t): @sesquiotic.


I’ve been enjoying watching a couple of bobcats lately. No, not via webcam, and I’m not watching old Hinterland Who’s Who episodes. I’m watching them out my window. They’re gradually ripping apart the building next door to my office, floor by floor.

Right, I mean the small front-end loader machines, popular on farms, construction sites, and so on. (Obviously I should have written Bobcat loaders, but that would have given away the game.) The building next door is – was – an office building, and the bobcats are lifted onto the floors by crane and used for knocking out walls and fixtures and dumping them out what used to be the window. I must admit, though, it’s a pleasing picture to imagine a couple of feisty felines doing the damage.

On the other hand, it would also be quite amusing to picture twin versions of Bobcat Goldthwait doing it. He might just run around screaming at things and they would crumble. (See his role in Police Academy for the reference.) Of course, in the world of real physics, he’d probably do pretty much bupkes.

The word bobcat is rather likeable. It has that one-two punch of a two-syllable two-morpheme compound, as though it’s a more specific, more emphasized version of cat. (Vulgarities sometimes gain a similar impact from the addition of horse, bull, goat, or such like before the focal four-letter word.) It has a nice balance, too, with the twin voiced stops bouncing off the lips first, and then two voiceless stops bringing in the tongue tail and tip. The vowels also balance, back vowel with front consonant and then front vowel with the farther-back consonants. And it’s sort of pretty, too – I do fancy the two b’s to be like the tufted ears of a bobcat, and the t perhaps to be a bit like the short tail.

And it’s that short tail that gives the cat its name – the bob is the same as in “a pageboy bob” for a short haircut for women, or bobtail as in “bet my money on the bobtail nag” and “bells on bobtail ring, making spirits bright” for a horse with a docked tail. It may be from a Gaelic root. This bob doesn’t have any known etymological connection with the name Robert, though Robert is the real first first name of Bobcat Goldthwait.

Whether the animal as a whole is short is a matter of perspective. It’s the smallest of the lynx family, and so much smaller than most wild cats, but it’s still around three feet long (66–104 cm, according to animals.nationalgeographic.com) and up to 30 pounds (14 kg). You might think it a pretty kitty, but if you want cat scratch marks, it will surely deliver if it has to.

The odds of your getting so close – or even seeing one out your window – are not so high, though. They avoid people and are most active in the hours around dawn and dusk. And the odds of seeing two of them working together are even worse; they’re solitary animals. But, on the other hand, you might live closer to one than you think: they’re found throughout quite a large part of North America, and there are lots of them out there – probably more than a million.