When Were Symbols First Used to Stand In For Cursing in Comics?

In "When We First Met," we spotlight the various characters, phrases, objects or events that eventually became notable parts of comic lore, like the first time someone said, "Avengers Assemble!" or the first appearance of Batman's giant penny or the first appearance of Alfred Pennyworth or the first time Spider-Man's face was shown half-Spidey/half-Peter. Stuff like that.

Reader Jim S. wrote in about my recent column about the introduction of the first speech balloon in comics and the first time that thought balloons were depicted as clouds instead of balloons. Jim wanted to also know when was the first time that symbols were used as a stand-in for cursing in comics.

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Few people have thought about the topic of using symbols in comic dialogue more than the late, great Mort Walker, creator of Beetle Bailey, who wrote extensively about the topic over the years and was the one who coined the term "grawlixes," to describe these symbols. However, that's not necessarily what Walker was trying to describe. He once wrote about these symbols that they are actually called a broader term, "maladicta," to describe the various ways that you can cover up profanity. Walker wrote, “The maladicta is made up of jarns, quimps, nittles, and grawlixes. What's the difference? Quimps are mostly astrological symbols, jarns are usually different types of spirals, nittles are bursting stars, and grawlixes are squiggly lines that represent ‘ostensibly obliterated epithets.' Naturally, they can all be mixed and matched according to the level of profanity a cartoonist wants: Stubbing your toe and dropping an anvil on your foot would result in some very different combinations.”

As you have no doubt noted, no one uses those other terms. The term "grawlix," though, has been adopted to describe pretty much all symbols that substitute for cursing.

Walker essentially gave up the point and even had some fun with the term in his own column...

As to the first usage of symbols to cover up profanity, for years, people have credited Rudolph Dirks and his Katzenjammer Kids, as this 1902 strip shows a character cursing like a sailor...

However, a year earlier, Gene Carr used cursing for symbols in a Lady Bountiful comic strip...

The current winner, though, was discovered by Thierry Smolderen (thanks for the recommendation, Aaron!) as he found some examples of symbols used for profanity in an 1877 publication Lightning Flashes and Electric Dashes...

It presumably even predates that comic, but for now, that's our winner!

Thanks for the question, Jim!

If anyone else has a question/suggestion for a notable comic book first, drop me a line at brianc@cbr.com!

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