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Adventures in Expletives

With William Shatner's new show readying for primetime, a look at the creative ways we bleep.

Are you ready for the new William Shatner show $#*! My Dad Says? That’s as close as CBS can get to the name of the Twitter account that inspired the series, though many have aptly noted that Shat My Dad Says would work too.

Oodles of TV shows have featured “CSI” or “Family” in their titles, but I can’t recall any that include a non-word like “$#*!,” which is more the obliteration of a word than a word itself. Though euphemisms will probably always be our main method of filth filtration, this new show is a reminder that there are plenty of other ways to neuter a naughty-ism. Avoidance characters like “$#*!”—as well as dashes, parenthetical substitutions, and torturous paraphrases—are all part of the rich history of taboo avoidance.

“$#*!”-type characters are quite common, and as Nancy Friedman points out, there is even a jean brand that uses the technique to exorcise a word as well as project an attitude: “Crazy B#@!h jeans.” These kinds of avoidance characters originated in comic books, and are called “grawlixes” or, as New York Times On Language columnist Ben Zimmer puts it, “obscenicons.” A feast of grawlixes can be found here, where Gwillim Law traces them back to 1911 and the Katzenjammer Kids.

Less flamboyantly, asterisks and dashes can also serve as avoidance characters: The f-word becomes “f-ck,” or shit becomes “s**t.” These bleeping techniques are even older. In The F-word, Jesse Sheidlower finds an example of “f-cked” in a legal document from 1865, and way back in 1680, the now-innocent “turd” was spelled “t-rd” in a poem. On Language Log, University of Pennsylvania linguist Mark Liberman collected many other old examples of “typo-bleeping,” which is similar to the spelling of “God” as “G-d”—though that practice maintains reverence rather than banishing sleaze.

Parenthetical substitutions are another common way of quoting without quoting completely. When umpire Jim Joyce recently blew a crucial first-base call, papers reported his mea culpa like so: "It was the biggest call of my career, and I kicked the [stuff] out of it. I just cost that kid a perfect game." After shooting horrendously in game 7 of the NBA finals, Kobe Bryant was quoted as saying: “I was thankful that I was able to make one [darn] shot at the end of the game and make some free throws.” Another parenthetical taboo-avoider was made famous by the Nixon tapes, as seen in Nixon-isms such as “(expletive removed) it,” which appeared in 1974’s The Presidential Transcripts, along with “(adjective deleted),” “(expletive omitted),” and the ever-popular “(expletive deleted).”

Then there are head-spinning circumlocutions. You have to admire the art of the paraphrase in a recent New Yorker piece by Tad Friend that mentioned a bodyguard who proposed to a paparazzi “...a tension-relieving service that he could perform upon himself.” In another piece on Kobe Bryant, Matt Moore writes, “Players are on record calling him a certain term for an orifice.” Stanford University linguist Arnold Zwicky has given several great rundowns on taboo avoidance, such as how a word much-beloved by Samuel L. Jackson is described as an “Oedipal expletive.” The craziest example Zwicky spotted might be “Well, f--- that” rendered as “Well, [I summarily reject] that.” Sometimes it’s hard to say whether salty language or de-salted language is more creative and bonkers.

An age-old issue of taboo avoidance is that the taboo may be avoided, but the avoidance is so clumsy and obvious that it feels obscene anyway. An Oxford English Dictionary example of “bleep” from 1975 expresses the problem well: “I fail to see why bleeps are used in radio and television interviews to cover up ‘unsavoury’ words and expressions. As soon as the bleep is heard the listeners immediately think—Oh, a four-letter word.”

Inevitably, “$#*!” brings to mind the shit it was meant to scoop up. Our minds go further into overdrive when hearing something is “unprintable” or “not fit for a family newspaper.” Zwicky has summed up taboo avoidance as a conflict between “Faithfulness (reproducing an original faithfully)” and “Well-Formedness (cleaving to some rule about what is ‘right’, ‘correct’, ‘appropriate’, etc.).”

That battle will never have a winner. In any era, “To bleep or not to bleep?” is a mother&#*!er of a question.

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