clock menu more-arrow no yes

How #$@!% became shorthand for cursing

It’s called a grawlix.

Phil Edwards/Vox

We’ve all seen a string of symbols used to represent a curse. But how did #$@!% happen?

The above video shows the story of this chain of symbols — a convention known as the “grawlix” thanks to the work of Beetle Bailey cartoonist Mort Walker. But its history goes back all the way to the early 1900s and the invention of comics.

Classic cartoons like The Katzenjammer Kids and Lady Bountiful helped establish the use of random symbols as a substitute for swears, and as a new art form developed, so did the grawlix convention. The first grawlix appeared as early as November 1, 1901. (You can find it here behind a paywall at Newspapers.com, or below.)

This is likely the first grawlix.
Newspapers.com

Still, the “first” grawlix is always changing. Our research built off the work of Ben Zimmer at Language Log, which had pegged the first grawlix as showing up a year later. Hopefully, people will keep unearthing cases of these unusual symbols — and enjoying the comics in which they appear.

Watch the above video to learn the history of the grawlix. You can find this video and all of Vox’s Almanac series on YouTube. And if you’re interested in supporting our video journalism, you can become a member of the Vox Video Lab on YouTube.