Over time, people have %&*# come up with various @$#& handy ways to insert $(^& swearing, or at least the @+)^ recognition of ^%*& swearing, without setting off the $)+$ Censor Alarms. One of the oldest and easiest #*%^ ways to do this is by $%&^ inserting random %&$#?@! symbols. This ()%$ method of &%&$ censorship has been seen in @*+^ newspaper comics from the #$%* beginning, making this trope Older Than #*^$ Radio.
Fun fact: The technical terms for such a stream of symbols is "grawlix", or "profanitype".
More *#&$ common in recent &$*^ times is the &+$# use of f***ing asterisks instead of f$%&ing random symbols, a case of T-Word Euphemism at work. See #$%@ Sound Effect Bleep for the )#%^ audio version, and ^%#+ Narrative Profanity Filter for other #^@$ ways of creatively conveying *+$# foul language.
A #*%^ subtrope of Pictorial Speech Bubble.
A series of magazine adverts for Tennants Lager featured a pint of lager in various situations, with a pithy phrase underneath including the red "T" logo. One of them showed the glass smashing onto the floor, with the simple caption "$#!T"
&*#*@ Anime & Manga
In a rare and rather strange manga example, in the second volume of the Fullmetal Alchemist manga, when Hughes tells Edward about the message from Roy, the curse word Edward uses to describe Roy is replaced with symbol swearing. However, the later volumes tend to leave in the swearing.
in One Piece, when Sanji is complaining about having been given a bounty poster featuring a very poorly-drawn sketch of him instead of a photo, Zoro remarks that the poster looks just like him. This upset Sanji so much that he's reduced to symbol swearing.
Zoro: Use real words. I don't get what you're saying.
Astérix uses nasty-looking rebus symbols to represent "ancient Gaulish swear-words."
Variant symbols are used for speakers of different nationalities, which is especially visible in one book where Asterix joins the Roman army (It Makes Sense in Context). Since this is a polyglot legion of barbarians, there is a translator. At one point, the centurion is hit by a flying breastplate (no, not that variety) and curses in pain. The interpeter explains to a Goth what the centurion has just said. The centurion then asks what he just told the Goth, and the translator repeats the commander's cursing back to him. Specifically, the centurion says "skull-n-crossbones, spiral, heavy cross, ampersand". This gets "translated" into Gothic as "skull in a pickelhaube, squared-off spiral, swastika, Gothic-font ampersand".
There's a fun moment where an Egyptian character in the background of a panel is swearing at another in hieroglyph-like drawings of an angry foot kicking someone in the behind, snakes and waving swords.
It's in fact very common in old comedic Franco-Belgian comics. The letterers tend to get creative and include Chinese ideograms, swastikas and drawings of volcanoes, explosions and skulls, or even WWI-Germany helmeted skulls blowing nuclear explosion mushrooms out of their orbital fenestrae.
Captain Haddock of Tintin, who swears like... well, a sailor, is more of a subversion: While he does sometimes employ symbol swearing, he also has a very rich Goshdang It To Heck vocabulary (which was compiled into a dictionary).
Appears in Chick Tracts plenty of times. Weirdly, in one example, where a teenager's swearing is rendered as random symbols, Bob then reprimands the boy for taking the name "Jesus Christ" in vain.
As shown above, Donald Duck tends to use this in his comics. It actually makes sense, when you realize in the cartoons you can't understand a thing he says in an angry rage. The image is from Don Rosa's comic The Magnificent Seven (Minus Four) Caballeros Ride Again.
Nextwave uses skull and crossbone symbols. This has spread across the Marvel Universe lately. One Nextwave character was named "Captain ☠☠☠☠", until Captain America washed his mouth out with soap.
Spider-Man: You know why people hate you? It's not because you're mutants!! It's because you're all a bunch of @#$@#$ $@$%@ ##@$!! That's why!! You $^$%^ $%^$ $^$%^ $%#^% #$ $% ^#$%^ $%%^!!! AAAGGHHH! (swings off) Colossus: Why am I an #$@#$@? I was just standing here.
In Angloman, Poutinette's swears are represented by small pictures of items from the Catholic liturgy. French-Canadian swearing is famously replete with church-related words.
You might be surprised but it happened all the time in the original The Smurfs comics by Peyo. Yep, the comic overall was much less childlike than its Animated Adaptation.
It was even played with in one one-page gag story, where a random Smurf hits his foot with a hammer and begins Symbol Swearing up a storm until Papa Smurf tells him to wash his mouth out with soap. In the last panel, when the Smurf speaks again, his word balloon is completely clean, but now soap bubbles containing swear symbols are floating all around him.
On the other hand, bad words were never "smurfed out", except on one notable occasion in King Smurf referencing General Cambronne's last stand.
Subverted during the Giffen/DeMatteis run on Justice League, when Guy Gardner, in a fit of pique after accidentally destroying an alien ship that the US government wanted retrieved in one piece, starts swearing. Instead of a bunch of symbols, his angry speech balloon contains a single asterisk, leading to a footnote at the bottom of the frame reading, "Expletives (lots of 'em) deleted."
In the Dean Koontz graphic novel Odd Is on Our Side, Odd Thomas pulls a little girl from the path of a speeding car and the startled driver exclaims "!@#$%!" Odd narrates, "I really despise potty mouths who speak in symbols."
In Knight & Squire, when the Squire has a blazing row with her boyfriend, it's represented by them both saying the words "<Captain Haddock style swearword icons.>"
In Archie Comics' Sonic the Hedgehog, Scourge the Hedgehog (formerly known as Anti-Sonic) tends to do this on occasion. Notable as he seems to be the only character who does this on a semi-regular basis.
An interesting example: Alan Moore has no trouble using actual curse words, but in Top 10, an incredibly awesome scene has Smax asking permission to break a foe's neck. The response from his captain is "Break her $#^&!(% neck, son", written with symbols. Even fans write it this way when they could write the curse out otherwise. It is also Painting the Medium: since Top 10 is a police procedural set in a comic book world, it would naturally have the characters curse in symbols.
On one occasion, the Norse gods were involved in a case. Their drunken cursing was censored with runic symbols.
This trope is occasionally used in The Beano and The Dandy to express a character's anger and they can't show swear words because those two comics are for children.
A story of Iznogoud has him asking Dilat Larat for a rope, when he was down a cliff. Dilat dropped the entire length of rope. Iznogoud began cursing, with bombs, bones, axes etc. Then a lot of these items began falling from above, seemingly dropped by Dilat who thought Iznogoud was asking for them.
ABCDEF. Yes, the one and only Gotlib brillianty inverted the trope in the fight between Superdupont and Bruce Lee. When they swear at each other, Superdupont uses a lot of grawlix and chinese characters, and Bruce Lee answers with the same grawlix (looking a bit more Chinese, font-wise), and instead of the chinese characters, "ABCDEF". Epic meta.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer uses this in the comics. A lot. There's even comics called "I think they're F#@%ing" and Them *&^%ing. It's Buffy and Angel. Guess what they do.
My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic (IDW): In issue #2, once the Mane 6 have been set against each other, one panel shows them all shouting at each other, punctuated with a single fancy exclamation point with a dagger set in, which may or may not be this trope, depending on your interpretation.
Also present in the Richie Rich comic books, particularly in the story where Mrs. Rich had set up a Swear Jar for her family. For the most part, only Mr. and Mrs. Rich did Symbol Swearing in that story.
Parodied in The Bojeffries Saga, in which we hear about a minor punk character who has "*** OFF" tattooed on her forehead. Then we see her, and she literally has "*** OFF" tattooed on her forehead, with the asterisks.
While Alias was a MAX imprint(meaing strong language was okay), The Pulse was not, and writer Brian Michael Bendis had to tone down the at-times foul-mouthed Jessica's dialogue accordingly.
Comic @#*£ Strips
Every Newspaper Comic ever has used these. Comics with adult characters, such as Dilbert, or aggressive humor, like Calvin and Hobbes tend to use these more often than tamer comics such as Peanuts.
A Sunday strip involves Jeremy getting scolded for swearing (represented by grawlixes), and comments that he's the only guy he knows who has a less colorful vocabulary than Beetle Bailey.
A daily strip has Jeremy saying "Star-Asterisk-Fishbone!" when he hurts himself, and when Hector comments on it (apparently it's the equivalent of Gosh Dang It to Heck!) he explains that his mother will kill him if he says [string of grawlixes].
One strip has Beetle correcting Sarge's use of the word ☁ [black cloud], and goes into a lengthy explanation of which other symbol swears should be used in conjunction with it. None of which would make any sense in Real Life, since swearing does not work that way.
Other examples include Sarge being embarrassed over using old-style cussing like # ("No one says # anymore"), and one where a flower is included in the tirade, because he "promised the chaplain he'd say something nice today". He's also been known to revert entirely to "nice" symbols when a superior is nearby, on one occasion signifying actual nice speech and on another still sounding awful because of the way he says it.
Sgt. Snorkel has periodic swearing contests with Sgt. Webbing, often using Franco-Belgian style symbols, with their men in the background cheering them on and placing bets. Sgt. Webbing won at least once, with a simple black cloud with "CENSORED" inside it. They had to carry Sgt. Snorkle off on a stretcher.
Beetle: This will teach you to play poker with the chaplain while Sgt. Webbing is on the golf course TRAINING!
At one time, Lt. Sonny Fuzz tried to force Sgt. Snorkel to use substitutes for swearing. In a fit of anger and total frustration, Sgt. Snorkel unleashes a barrage of Symbol Swearing that had inside of the Speech Balloon the shark from Jaws, a Mushroom Cloud, and even Dracula. The end result of it all? One of Lt. Fuzz's medals had MELTED.
Sarge and Louise Lugg have been spotted filling a crossword puzzle with strings of swearing symbols instead of letters. "What's a five-letter word starting with #?"
One stretch of Get Fuzzy cartoons has Satchel actually pronounce his Symbol Swearing ("Did you leave this lightning bolt plus sign brick on the floor?").
The Moomins have played with this trope in their newspaper comic, though they take things a little further than normal: Swear words are represented by physical, tangible and agressive little creatures who run around and cause havoc. At one point, the Moomins find an entire box of them floating out at sea, mentioning that there must have been some sailor who decided to stop swearing and threw all his swear words overboard. After the swear words have been making nuisances of themselves for a while, the Moomins get rid of them by, as a practical joke, wrapping them up and sending them by mail to an old, prissy aunt.
In the MAD parody of ET The Extraterrestrial, the main character's friends insult each other with typical insults like "butt-head," "armpit" and "nerd," and when the main character uses this kind of swearing, his mother tells him that there will not be any asterisks, dollar signs or ampersands spoken in their house.
Used frequently in Pearls Before Swine, sometimes straight, and sometimes as meta humor (Rat using the planet in the line of symbols to replace a missing Saturn from Pig's Solar System model).
Nobody Dies has people swearing fairly often, but any instances of "fuck" get replaced with "f___". Unless that specific instance is meant to be a Precision F-Strike, in which case the word is written out fully.
Grubba: Did the Blue Blur really turn yella and head for the hills like a dog?!? Koops: The only time he'd be turning yellow is to go Super Sonic and kick your a$$! Goombella:Using dollar signs? Link: It was Koops, not me. He's a wimp, remember? Koops: HEY!
$*@^ Films — Live-Action
Subverted in Hot Fuzz, when we see the "swear box", it has a sign on it showing the price for each swear word. All the words have at least one letter changed to a symbol, except for "cunt", the highest priced word, which is left unaltered.
Invoked in Men at Arms, where we're told that Carrot's friendly greetings to everyone in Ankh-Morpork were reciprocated by people "whose normal response to a remark from a Watchman would be genteelly paraphrased by a string of symbols generally found on the top row of a typewriter's keyboard."
Carrot can also pronounce the asterisk in "d*mn," and "'!' said Rincewind" is, if not this trope, something close to it.
Mr. Tulip in The Truth says "-ing". A -ing lot, like -ing nearly every other -ing word. Due to the prevalence of this trope, most readers will assume that's what's going on. Later in the book, another character hangs a lampshade on this: "Why does that man keep saying 'ing'?"
In Mort, the title character vanishes just before being stabbed. His attackers assume him a wizard, and one remarks: "I hate ——ing wizards", to which his companion replies, "Well, you shouldn't —— them then."
A set of repeated single symbols, such as #### is used and corresponds directly to a particular curse word in English, typically revealed by the reaction dialogue of the characters around them. This being Xanth, these words can literally start fires and peel paint.
In The Color of Her Panties, an underage Goblin learns a bunch of the rude words. So he's taken by force to the River Lethe to force him to forget the words. After the treatment, all his attempts to shout obscenities are written literally as "____".
The protagonist of The Pigman is "asked not to swear" and has two different substitutions, one for regular swears and one for really bad ones, and thinks it's convenient because the reader will likely come up with something far more creative than he ever could.
"#%*'@+!" he said darkly, in inscrutable Mandarin.
An outtake from the Tough Magic trilogy includes a very long line of symbol swearing. Apparently the characters were getting it out of the system, as the Author had forbade swearing in the book itself.
The Totally Radical brain injury prevention site U Got Brains uses this for the title of one of its sections, "Can't Make This S#!* Up", presumably to enhance its image. The title as seen on the actual page is written in a graffiti-style that tries to make it look as close to its obscene counterpart as possible. Interestingly, a different set of symbols are used before you mouse over the link, including the biohazard symbol.
This may crop up in surprising places due to automatic profanity filters, such as when discussing Philip K. D!ck on Delphi discussion boards. (If you just write it outright, it becomes Philip K. ####.)
Comicbook boards with profanity filters can also be fun. I've enjoyed many a discussion of Batman's first Robin, *** Grayson.
The filters themselves may replace the words with these symbols. The Steam forums replace swears with rows of pink hearts. This has been parodied from time to time, such as a homemade Team Fortress 2 map that featured a sign reading "ATTACK THAT ♥♥♥♥ING FORT", and a forum post where "Meet the Demoman" was quoted thus:
"I'm a black, Scottish cyclops. They got more ♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥ than they got the likes o' me." (NOTE: The hearts correspond to a lengthy Sound Effect Bleep at the exact same spot in the movie.)
In most newspaper stories, the offending words in a statement containing profanity (where there is no compelling reason to use the word) is often replaced with dashes, with only the initial letter shown. For instance, "damn" might be replaced by d—-. This is the simplest form of using symbols to acknowledge but censor use of profanity. While the less severe profanity — such as damn and hell and occasionally ass — is often spelled out these days, the dashes are used for the more harsh words and, frequently, for the "n" word.
One Dave Barry column was titled &*@##%$(!?,.<>+*&'%$!!@@$##%%^&. The narrator of the audiobook used muffled grunts and squeaks as an equivalent.
The old gaming rag Game Players was especially fond of using "@$$" as a substitute for "the 'ass' word."
Referenced in 'Sam & Max Hit the Road'', in a conversation with a foul-mouthed psychic who gets his words bleeped out, which leads to the following exchange:
Sam: Percent sign ampersand dollar sign. Max: And colon semicolon too! Psychic: What are you @!#$ doing? Sam: Swearing in longhand, asterisk-mouth.
Also in Sam and Max, but in the Season 2 finale, Timmy Two-Teeth, a character who is constantly bleeped out due to his "terminal Tourette's Syndrome", has personal writing lessons: For the moment, he knows how to write ampersands, number symbol and percents.
This is pretty much Q*bert's Catch Phrase. It was originally going to be his name! In Wreck-It Ralph, it's portrayed as a language known as Q-Bertese that causes speech balloons to appear whenever you speak it.
Parodied in Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga. Princess Peach (really Birdo dressed up) has her voice stolen at the start of the game by Fawful and Cackletta, and her words are replaced with symbols. However, the symbols actually fall from her speech bubbles and explode like bombs. She then proceeds to make a long speech and nearly blows up the entire castle.
In Brutal Legend If you have Closed Captions turned on and Swearing turned off all curse words in the Subtitles will be replaced with symbols.
Obtaining the Unmaker in Doom 64 will display the message "What the !@#%* is this!"
The game mocks the player if they do not reset after dying. One of the messages is "YOU LAZY @&$#!"
In Final Fantasy VII, every other word Barret muttered is one of these. Particularly egregious when during some of his swears, the symbols are longer than most curses have letters (maybe he's speaking Russian mat, which is famous for its ability to agglomerate profanities into long words). Unfortunately, Barret's language is a lot MORE TAMER that Cid Highwind's, who's sentences are virtually PEPPERED with profanities!
In the Homestar Runner game Kid Speedy, the hero, is slowed down by a variety of junk foods... and swears, shown as "@!?#!". The King of Town, who is a reverse of the hero, gains speed from these items. Yes, even the swears.
In Fullmetal Alchemist and the Broken Angel, most of Ed's swearing is left in except for one instance where Armony falls on him. Ed demands an apology and when Armony decides to be a smartass about it, Ed is not amused.
Ed: #@$%&!! Where are YOUR manners!?!? Is that the attitude you cop after using someone's back as a #@$&ing trampoline!?
In the City of Heroes MMORPG, there is a "Profanity Filter" setting that can be turned on or off as the player chooses. When it's on, swear words in chat windows appear either as <bleep> or a short string of grawlix.
The World of Warcraft games have a censor button; the #@$&ing thing got stuck on after a recent patch, so there were several mods to turn it off again. One of them was named something like '#@$& off #@$& filter'
In Escape from Monkey Island, Guybrush asks Herman Toothrot, "How do I get off this [bleep] island?", as the swearing is bleeped in the dialogue and replaced by symbols in the in-game text.
In Super Mario Bros. 2, when the defeated Wart is hauled away at the end, various symbols fly from him as he's taken offscreen.
The PETA parody Super Tanooki Skin 2D has this message pop up when you finally get your skin back from Mario:
"#$*! YOU MARIO! THIS SKIN BELONGS TO AN ANIMAL!"
From the Gamecube iteration of Custom Robo, at one point early in the game, while Harry is training the protagonist, their boss tries to call him, but is unable to get through because Harry has his phone off, so he calls the protagonist and yells at him to tell Harry to call him back. After Harry is told this and does so, the boss' text box consists nothing of symbols, with the texting's volume turned up to show how angry he is.
Web *~@^# Animation
One of Sceb's mailbag cartoons on Fred The Monkey has a fan threatening to "@$%#^ THE #%^&!@ OUT OF YOU!!!!" Sceb pronounces this as "symbol the symbols out of you."
Button's Adventures: After Button's mother grounds him, he swears in his invented language Humgonian, and the English subtitles provided just give us some random symbols.
Web *?#~! Comics
For webcomic artists, Blambot offers a freeware font called Potty Mouth, which makes true use of this trope.
Appears in a cover page of GastroPhobia. Interestingly, one of the symbols is a hand giving the middle finger. An earlier comic had a character use the word "bullshitting", so the use of this trope is clearly stylistic or Rule of Funny. Since it's the cover for the story that follows, this is probably to keep actual dialog off it.
One episode of the World of Warcraft strip Dark Legacy Comics has Donald, the resident "not the sharpest banana in the bunch", stub his toe and yell, "And dollars at star number!" After repeating it a few times, another character tells him he really needs to turn off his &$@*# profanity filter.
An episode has Drow leader Matron Stress say, "You just don't get it, do you, Elsa? Ogrek is beyond strategy. Better minds than mine have tried to undo him. Everything he does always @*!$ works out for him. *§%# his @*#¶>\&¿¢£¥!!!" Persephone the Affably Evil vampire asks Elsa what that last word meant and is told, "I'll tell you when you're older."
In another strip, Persephone, insisting that vampires are the epitome of cool, claimed to have "the lowest body temperature and *!¥¢#ingest wardrobe of the lot of you!" A footnote pointed out that adding a superlative suffix to "*!¥¢#" was completely ungrammatical.
Kazumi Kato unleashes a flood of these in The Order of the Stick, before which they had been used very sparingly. (Web comics can get away with slightly more colorful language than comic books and comic strips.)
An actual, useful new search engine for programmers, SymbolHound, plays with this: it has the Tag Line, "for finding @%$^#&! symbols." That is exactly what it does — allows one to search for those symbols (among others) — but still, it's obvious what they mean, as anyone who's tried to search for symbols using other search engines has probably complained about their lack of *$(%ing support for that.
*&^%$! Western Animation
The closed captioning on South Park used to use grawlixes to represent any swearing that was beeped out.
The Garfield and Friends segment "The Guy of Her Dreams" had a comic book where Penelope does this shown during the last song she sings.