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.

4 responses to “grawlix

  1. Ben Zimmer (@bgzimmer) points out that some like to call them obscenicons. See

  2. That is good. I often wonder how the first languages got started and it’s very frustrating that there’s no real way we can ever figure it out.

  3. Isn’t the plural of ‘grawlix’ ‘grawlices’?

  4. Pingback: spoffle | Sesquiotica

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