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Censorship by Spelling

Whenever people (usually parents) want to discuss something they don't want anyone younger (or dumber) to know about, they will tend to spell it out because they figure that kids can't spell. Usually Played for Laughs, and is Truth in Television. In comedy, usually results in either the person being spoken to not understanding what was spelled and/or the person who's supposed to be locked out understanding perfectly.

This can also be done with animals (e. g., mentioning a C-A-T within earshot of the dog).


    open/close all folders 

  • An old McDonald's commercial had the parents spelling out ideas to each other of where to go next. Their daughter suddenly suggests McDonald's. As it dawns on the parents that she understood everything they'd just said, the daughter then adds, "Oops, I mean M-C-D-O-N-A-L-D-S."
    • This could have been a nod to the 1980s theme song "Good Time, Great Taste", which had the restaurant name being spelled out.

  • Jasper Carrott did a joke about how parents tend to use this long after it has ceased to be useful — "You've left your C-O-N-D-O-M on the P-A-T-I-O", "Mum! What's a patio?"
  • Comedian Jim Gaffigan has a bit about this. "I always feel dumb. It doesn't help that my wife spells everything in front of the kids":
    Wife: Don't tell anyone about the I-C-E C-R-E-A-M!
    Jim Gaffigan: (beat) ...who's in the emergency room? And why do I want a dilly bar?
  • Josh Blue has a bit about how his parents used to do this around him well into his twenties. The punchline was that he still didn't know what they were talking about.

    C-o-m-i-c S-t-r-i-p-s 
  • Jon tried to do this in a Garfield strip while on the phone with Liz, only for it to backfire:
    Jon: I know a place with a great B-U-F-F-E-T.
    Garfield: Make it a table for T-H-R-E-E.
  • In one Pogo strip, Pogo tries to use it to talk to Albert without the puppy they're taking care of understanding. Unfortunately, Albert doesn't quite get it...
    Pogo: I'm gone make the lil' pup dog some P-U-D-D-I-N-G for his S-U-P-P-E-R.
    Albert: Uh-huh... Well... Hmm... Yes... Um... P-D-Q-R-S-V-P? Um... Well... Indeed...
  • In one strip of The Family Circus, one of the kids (probably Billy) wonders whose birthday is approaching since their parents are spelling their talk again.
  • An issue of The Simpsons comics has Maude Flanders telling the police that "Neddy and I had an A-R-G-U-M-E-N-T" when he angrily abandons their campsite and never comes back. (It's eventually revealed that he's been abducted by space aliens.)

  • In I'm Coming Home Lily Potter comments to a friend on her daughter's eating habits.
    Lily: You try too hard Marley.
    Marlene: She has to eat more than B-A-N-A-N-A-S Lil.

    F-i-l-m-s — A-n-i-m-a-t-i-o-n 
  • In Disney's Alice in Wonderland, while trying to avoid the C word which causes the Dormouse to go berserk.
    Alice: I was sitting on the riverbank with uh... you know who.
    The Mad Hatter: I do? (chuckles)
    Alice: I mean my C-A-T.
    The Mad Hatter: TEEAA!?
  • Finding Nemo:
    Gurgle: Whatever you do, don't mention D-A-R...
    Nemo: It's okay, I know who you're talking about.
  • In 101 Dalmatians, Pongo suggests getting the puppies to bed so he and Perdita can go out on a W-A-L-K. While not explicitly stated whether the puppies do know how to spell, a couple of them do beg to stay up and join their parents on the walk.
  • Dumbo
    • "Wow, just take a look at those E-A-R-S..." (which is then completely undone when one of the other elephants, not understanding, thinks it over and then blurts out: "Oh! EARS!")
    • And then, a little bit later...
    "It's all the fault of that little F-R-E-A-K." (Again, the same elephant blurts out the word just spelled.)
  • From The Lego Movie:
    Emmet: "Oh, my G-O-S-H!"

    F-i-l-m-s — L-i-v-e—A-c-t-i-o-n 
  • Played with in Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules. Greg and Rodrick changed the door to their bathroom to conceal the fact they had a party while their parents were gone and are trying to keep them from noticing.
    Rodrick: Does he know about the D-O-R-E?
    Greg: Huh?
  • Done in The Goonies by Data, who "cusses", "Holy S-H-I-T!" He didn't want to swear in the film for his parents' sakes.
  • In Easy A, Olive is trying to tell her parents why she got detention (use of a certain word in class) at the dinner table, in front of her much younger brother. Her parents tell her to spell the word with her peas.
  • Played for Drama in The Holiday. When Amanda finds out that Graham has two young daughters, she discreetly asks him if he's D-I-V-O-R-C-E-D, and Graham replies that he's a W-I-D-O-W-E-R.
  • Subject of a joke in O Brother, Where Art Thou? where a father tries to explain what happened to his missing wife in front of his son: "she done R-U-N-N-O-F-T". A couple of scenes later the son reveals he knew exactly what was (trying) to be said when he attempts to do the same.
  • From Jingle All the Way:
    Howard: "I have to pick up the D-O-L-L. I left it at the office yesterday."

  • Subverted in a certain blonde joke, with the punchline, "Honey, why don't we send the kids up to P-L-A-Y so we can go fuck!"

  • Inverted in Henry and Ramona. Henry Huggins has no idea what Ramona means when she hears everyone talking about "PTA" and insists that she wants some. Beezus figures out that Ramona thinks that they're spelling out something tasty, like "c-o-o-k-i-e-s" or "c-a-n-d-y". This leads to them having to buy a snack for Ramona and telling her that it's PTA.
  • In The Hen of the Baskervilles from the Meg Langslow Mysteries, Meg and her family do this when discussing sensitive topics in earshot of Meg's twins. At one point, they spell out i-c-e c-r-e-a-m, only for one of the twins to immediately start babbling about ice cream, but Meg assures the others that the twins are always asking for "ice cream" and it doesn't mean that they're learning to spell.
  • In Double Vision: Code Name 711, a children's spy/mystery thriller book, the main characters are searching for a "Dangerous Double," a coat worn by George Washington that has the power to make one invincible against bullet and other attacks. One of them asks the main character, "Did you find the c-o-a-t?" and he points out "I'm sure if any bad guys are listening in, they know how to spell."
  • In Under the Dome, Carolyn Sturge does it with the word "dope" in front of two kids, Alice and Aidan, but it doesn't work, because Alice can spell.
    Carolyn: Before we go making any charges, Thurse, you want to remember that we had D-O-P-E.
    Alice: Dope! Our mom smokes marijuana some­times, because it helps when she's having her P-E-R-I-O-D.

    L-i-v-e—A-c-t-i-o-n T-V 
  • In My Name Is Earl when Earl sleeps with Joy, Joy and Earl have this conversation in front of Earl Jr.
    Earl: I have to tell him [Darnell].
    Joy: Like H-E-double-L you do.
    Earl: I can't live like this Joy, he needs to know we... H-A-D sex together.
    Joy: That is B-U-double-L honkey!
  • Played for Drama in Criminal Minds episode "100". Hotch is on the phone with his wife Haley after learning that she and their son Jack are held in hostage by George Foyet a.k.a. The Reaper.
    Hotch: He's just trying to make you angry.
    Foyet: Well she should be! She's gonna (covers Jack's ears and lowers his voice) D-I-E because of your inflated ego!
  • From LOST:
    Hurley: (glances at Walt) But what about the B-O-D-Y-S?
    Michael: What are you trying to spell man, bodies?
    Walt: B-O-D-I-E-S.
  • From Friends:
    Joey: (after walking into Monica and Chandler's apartment and hearing them having sex instead of babysitting Emma) You can't have S-E-X when you're looking after a B-A-B-I-E!
  • Famously in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode, "When She Was Bad":
    Willow: I mean, why else would she be acting like such a B-I-T-C-H?
    Giles: Willow, I think we're all a little too old to be spelling things out.
    Xander: ...A bitca?
  • There's an example in one of The Comic Strip Presents episodes, possibly "The Beat Generation".
    Girl: I'm having my P-E-R-I-O-D.
    Boy: Pernod?
  • Sybil in Fawlty Towers says they might have to put Manuel's rat "to S-L-E-E-P," to which Manuel responds, "Spleep?"
  • Lampshaded on Castle when Esposito, nervously looking at Alexis who happens to be in the squad room, spells out B-I-T-C-H (in reference to another person). Alexis and her father give each other a disgusted look.
    Castle: She can spell, Detective.
    Ryan: Probably better than you!
  • Played with in the Red Dwarf episode "Parallel Universe", where it turns out that the Cat's alternate-universe counterpart is a Dog:
    Cat: When's the last time you took a bath?
    Dog: Oh, please, don't say that word!
    Cat: What, "bath?"
    Dog: You said it again. Now listen up: if you're gonna say that word in front of me, please, spell it.
    Cat: When's the last time you took a B-A-T-H?
    Dog: ... what's that?
  • This exchange from the classic Doctor Who serial The Sun Makers:
    The Doctor: Leela, I think you and I should take a— a W-A-L-K.
    Leela: A W-A-L-K...?
    The Doctor: Wuh-Ah-Ll-K!
    K-9: Walk, mistress.
  • Played with on 3rd Rock from the Sun:
    Dick: Dr. Albright has already RSVP'd.
    Harry: You said you'd stop spelling in front of me.
  • In one episode of Frasier, Martin tries to keep Eddie from running every time the word "vet" is mentioned by invoking this trope. It doesn't work.
  • Subverted in a segment on The Daily Show segment, where Samantha Bee has her young son standing right next to her (it's Take Your Child to Work Day) while talking about torture methods:
    Sam: When a bound and naked prisoner has electrodes attached to...
    Jon: (interrupting) Okay, Sam, Sam, Sam...
    Sam: Oh, I'm sorry. To his T-E-S-T-I-C-L-E-S... testicles.
  • One episode of Benson in which the main character is Mistaken for Dying has Clayton try to use this method to keep this information from Katie. It doesn't work.
    Clayton: Ah, Miss Kraus. Have you heard from the...D-O-C-T-O-R?
    Katie: Clayton, that was S-T-U-P-I-D.
  • Played hilariously straight in Mongrels:
    Marion: Every time humans take an animal to the so called V.E.T.S. they end the vets.
  • In an episode of Full House, Jesse and Becky do this to try to get Nicky and Alex to sleep.
    Jesse: Now let's get the boys to S-L-E-E-P, so we can get the H-E-C-K O-U-T.
    Becky: But F-I-R-S-T W-E S-H-O-U-L-D —
    Jesse: Hold on, let me get a crayon.
  • In the Yes Dear episode, "One Fish, Two Fish, Dead Fish, Blue Fish", We get this exchange after Sammy's pet fish dies suddenly:
    Kim: "Where's the fish?"
    Greg: "Shhh! Don't talk about the F-I-S-H!"
    Kim: "Oh no, is he D-E-A-D already?"

  • Tammy Wynette's song "D-I-V-O-R-C-E" is about a woman talking about her divorce in front of her 4-year-old son.
  • Billy Connolly's parody version of "D.I.V.O.R.C.E" is about his dog.
    His Q.U.A.R.A.N.T.I.N.E starts today,
    Because he bit the V.E.T. and then he ran away.
    He caused me and my wife to have a big fight, and then, both of them bit me.
    And that's why I am gonna get a D.I.V.O.R.C.E.
  • Similarly to the Tammy Wynette example, "What Will You Do with M-E?" by Western Flyer:
    Hey D-A-D-D-Y, I saw M-A-M-A cry
    Say you're not going away
    Is it because of me? Have I been B-A-D?
    Please, daddy, please, won't you stay?
    'Cause if you leave, what will you do with M-E?
  • Rascal Flatts does this in "Backwards":
    We sat there and shot the bull about how it would be
    If we could turn it all around and change this C-R-A-P
  • Britney Spears tried to get crap past the radar with her Double Entendre-laden song "If U Seek Amy", which contains the line "All of the boys and all of the girls are beggin' to If U Seek Amy." For the slow of wit, she's saying "F-U-C-K Me". Unfortunately, the parents did figure it out, it became a big deal (on FOX News), and most radio stations in both America and the UK do have the song edited to either remove the "eek" in "seek" (making it "If you see Amy," which, in the context of the song, makes no sense whatsoever) or get rid of the "If You" and the "eek" part in "seek" to make the song about seeing a girl named Amy).
  • Swing-rock group Squirrel Nut Zipper's hit "Hell" features this in the last verse, although it's more for the rhyme and scansion than anything else:
    "Now the 'D' and the 'A' and the 'M' and the 'N'
    And the 'A' and the 'T' and the 'I-O-N'!
    Lose your face, lose your name,
    Then get ready for eternal flame!"

    P-r-i-n-t M-e-d-i-a 
  • A MAD "Lighter Side Of" strip had the parents talking about their son's bad report card in front of him; the mother was reluctant but the father said "just spell it." So they had a conversation, which ended with:
    Mother: I-M W-O-R-R-I-E-D T-H-A-T H-E M-A-Y B-E S-T-U-N-T-E-D I-N-T-E-L-L-E-C-T-U-A-L-Y.
    Son: That's I-N-T-E-L-L-E-C-T-U-A-L-L-Y!
    • Another "Lighter Side Of" used a similar one:
    Woman: [about a nearby girl] She's not very P-R-E-T-Y, is she?
    Girl: But I'm very S-M-A-R-T, and by the way, "pretty" is spelled with two Ts.

    P-u-p-p-e-t S-h-o-w-s 
  • A conversation in Dinosaurs:
    Fran: We'll discuss this later. I don't want to lose my temper in front of the B-A-B-Y.
    Earl: Okay, but I'm telling you right now, I'm not changing anymore D-I-P... no, wait, D-A-I... no, no, no, D-A-P... no, no, no...
    Baby: (spelling out with alphabet blocks) THEY THINK I CAN'T SPELL

  • Starlight Express features "U-N-C-O-U-P-L-E-D", a nod to Tammy Wynette's "D-I-V-O-R-C-E"; the spelling in this case is because the concept of being "uncoupled" is so painful to Dinah she can't even say the word. Of course, the end of the song also spells out B-A-S-T-A-R-D.

    V-i-d-e-o G-a-m-e-s 

    W-e-b O-r-i-g-i-n-a-l 
  • In The Annoying Orange episode, "The Microwave Effect":
    Pear: Don't mention the K-N-I-F-E.
    Orange: The Kanifee? What's a Kanifee?
    Apple: That's knife you idiot. He's not supposed to mention the... wait a second, I'm gonna get knifed!?
  • slowbeef:
    Diabetus: See, what you need is the T-R-E-A-T beam.
    slowbeef: The tit beam?

    W-e-s-t-e-r-n A-n-i-m-a-t-i-o-n 
  • From Arthur:
    Francine: Muffy lost her mother's expensive P-E-N.
    D.W.: Her what? If you spell stuff, I can't understand what you're talking about.
    Arthur: That's exactly why we spell stuff.
  • A non-child version occurs in the Beethoven The Animated Series.
    "We need to give Beethoven a B-A-T-H."
    (Beethoven hears this and runs out of the house)
    "Okay, who's been teaching the dog to spell?"
  • In The Fairly OddParents Wanda tries to take Cosmo to the D-O-C-T-O-R.
    Cosmo: What? Doctor? I thought she was spelling plumber. It's worse than I thought!
  • Metalocalypse has one made funnier by the fact that Toki's English is atrocious:
    Toki: Maybe he needs to go to the... B-A-S-T-H-R-O-M-N-S-E.
  • Occurs in Recess: School's Out. The scene starts at breakfast, where T.J. is brokenhearted about being alone that summer without his friends, who were all at camp. His sister comes down, and this is when it occurs:
    Becky: Bye Mom, bye Dad... bye T-jerk.
    Mrs. Detweiler: Now Becky, I want you to be nice to your brother; he's feeling S-A-D right now.
    T.J.: I can spell, Mom.
  • The Simpsons
    • In episode "Don't Fear the Roofer":
      Marge: I'm going to take the dog to the V-E-T.
      Santa's Little Helper: ?
      Marge: Then I'm going to take Bart to get C-I-R-C-U-M-C-I-S-E-D.
      Bart: Huh?
      Marge: Uh... I'll tell you what it means when it's over.
    • Also this call back to Krusty's illiteracy.
      Maude Flanders: We're talking about S-E-X in front of the C-H-I-L-D-R-E-N.
      Krusty: The Sex Cauldron? I thought they closed that place down.
  • From DuckTales, while in front of Scrooge's business partner while Fenton Crackshell is pretending to be Scrooge:
    Mrs. Featherby: There was an emergency phone-call. The workers at the skateboard factory are on S-T-R-I-K-E.
    Fenton: Strik? Streak? What? I'm a lousy speller!
  • In the Family Guy episode "Farmer Guy":
    Lois: Meth? As in D-R-U-G-S? Aren't those I-L-L-E-G-A-L?
    Stewie: What's going on? What are you guys talking about?
    Lois: Uh oh, someone's getting cranky. (picks up Stewie) I think he needs an N-A-P.
    Stewie: What's happening? Where are you taking me? Man, I got to crack this code.
  • From the Rugrats episode, "Chuckie Vs. The Potty'':
    Didi: "We'll take good care of Chuckie and make sure he uses his P-O-T-T-Y. "
  • A beautiful example in sixteen
    Jude: "There's sex in H-E-R-E. I spelled the wrong word"
  • From the Timon & Pumbaa episode, "Once Upon A Timon":
    Zazu (about Simba): "He still only eats B-U-G-Ses."
  • From the Robot Chicken sketch, "Fruity Fables":
    Arthur: "Barry! Just where the H-E-C-Letter-that-comes-after-J have you been?"
  • In Histeria the younger cast sang a song about the history of the British royals to the tune of Greensleeves/What Child Is This:
    "In Fifteen-Hundred and Forty-Seven
    Henry the Eighth went up to Heaven,
    Or maybe because of his dirty tricks,
    He went to H-E-Double Hockey Sticks."

    R-e-a-l L-i-f-e 
  • This can be extended to different things, such as secret communication. For example, "cat" could be described by drawing a cookie, an apple, then a trophy. As expected, this can also be used as a means of cheating at games such as Pictionary.
  • Using this trope with your pets can actually negate its effects over (sometimes a very short amount of) time. For example, using "W-A-L-K" instead of "walk" to keep a dog from becoming overexcited may not work if the dog hears the spelling and notices the resulting action (going for a walk) often enough to realize that the different sounds mean the same thing.
    • Marie Killilea, in With Love From Karen, describes the triple-think required in starting to use the word "walk", stopping to spell it, remembering that the dog can understand the spelled version, remembering that the dog can also understand the replacement word, and finally completing your sentence with "a-m-b-u-l-a-t-e".

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