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Several variants of this topic have already been covered here, such as:

What name for bowdlerisation with asterisks (e.g., “f*ck”)?

What the #$@&%*! is that called?

However, these deal with the naming of this convention or with replacing whole words with asterisks / obscenicons / grawlixes, not with the partial censoring of still-visible and understandable words.

My question is: Why and when did we start censor words such as f**k with partial-asterisks but still retain the same word length/structure/opening-closing letters so the word is still understandable but yet deemed 'safe' in this way? What is the origin of such a method (and, more of a separate question, is the same thing done in non-English languages?)

Google NGram seems to show the first instance of f**k from 1959 but doesn't show any context, or where this actually was used.

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The reason is to get around the censors or "letter-of-the-law" in a way that still lets readers know exactly what was intended by the author. –  Jim Feb 8 '13 at 16:12
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Do you mean specifically with asterisks, or would you include the dash of "Then Rigby ſitting on Mintons Lap, kiſt him ſeveral times, putting his Tongue into his Mouth, askt him, if he ſhould F————— him, how can that be askt Minton" from a 1698 sodomy trial? (Minton seems quite innocent of the ways of the world, doesn't he?) –  Jon Hanna Feb 8 '13 at 16:24
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@JonHanna not specifically asterisks, no, but where the offensive word has letters replaced with other characters but still retain the main content of that word so that it's still clear what the censored word is supposed to represent. –  JonW Feb 8 '13 at 16:29
    
With emails now being filtered for certain words, I have used symbols, dashes and intentional misspellings to get certain e-mail messages through to friends with particularly stringent network proctors. Think about the last time you've seen an e-mail for "Viagra"? :-) –  Kristina Lopez Feb 8 '13 at 18:38
    
@Kristina Lopez Very wise ! I do the same since I realized that even on Gmail which is proud of being discreet, I was sometimes triggering spam on both sides, despite filters. Try for instance "the gla§th of my i%fon is broken" without coding the sentence ! As if real criminals or fraudsters were not clever enough to code their messages by the formulation, or the use of a rare language. From my European point of view, it is an incredible naivety from the Americans. –  ex-user2728 Oct 12 '13 at 11:28
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2 Answers 2

up vote 15 down vote accepted

Purpose

The use of typography to censor words was to avoid breaking obscenity laws, and it was blasphemous to make fun of religion. Religious words were censored more than "normal" swear words, and were only censored when used as part of oaths; normal use was unbleeped. Dashes were used to obfuscate from the mid-17th century and throughout the 18th century and asterisks were common from the 19th century on.

1710

Eliminative dashes, as in D--n for Damn can be found as early as 1710 in The Tatler (found via The Anatomy of Swearing (2001) by Ashley Montagu):

D---n you all, for a set of sons of whores; you will stop here to be paid by the hour! ... Why, and be d------d to you, do you not drive over that fellow?

1687

Earlier than then Rigby sodomy trial of 1698 is this citation in the OED for shit:

a1687 Duke of Buckingham Instalment in Wks. (1705) II. 88 You're such a scurvy..Knight, That when you speak a Man wou'd swear you S——te.

1688

Mark Liberman of Language Log searched LION (LIterature ONline) and found Richard Ames's "A Satyr Again Man", from Sylvia's Revenge (1688):

314 Bully how great i'th' Mouth the Accent sounds;
315 Bully who nothing breaths but Bl---d and W--nds?

1680

The same Language Log post has John Oldham's poem "Upon the Author of a Play call'd Sodom" from Works (1680):

26 Whence nauseous Rhymes, by filthy Births proceed,
27 As Maggots, in some T---rd, ingendring breed.


1684

Jack Horntip has a fascinating collection of books from the 17th century to today. Several contain typo-bleeping, but it may be that some of them are later (sometimes 19th century) reprints with censoring added at the later time, and the originals may have been uncensored.

The following are all from the Jack Horntip Collection and most only show the raw OCR (plain scanned text). It's possible they're from later printings, but from the first pages I get the impression they're the original typography. However, they could be later, edited, "facsimile" re-printings, as I'm unsure if the years would be written in Roman or Arabic numerals at this time. (These should all be available online in the Early English Books Online database for further verification.)

Edit: I've confirmed these in the EEBO database.

The earliest that has a full PDF is in Sodom or the Quintessence of Debauchery (1684) by the Earl of Rochester, which is chock full of all sorts of uncensored sexual language but bleeps out "heaven[s]", "almighty", "God[s]" (although there's a single "p—s"), for example:

Al . . . ty Cunts, whom Bolloxinion here

Say what you want, but be careful of the Church!

1675

Mock Songs and Jovial Poems (1675):

You'd find the Perfume,
Almost as strong as it was:
Nay, she had such an Art,
In Letting a F—,
I mean for the Noise and Smell;

1672

Covent Garden Drolery 2nd Ed. (date also shown on the scanned first page):

Now he that sate here had much the better pjace,
He broke not his Neck, though he wetted his Ar—
For by th'ill successive disposure of th'other
Folks saw, and they tumbled too, one o're another,

1658

Wit Restor'd by John Mennes issued in 1658:

In rythem daigne goddess to accept my verses,
I wis with worse wise men have wip't their A—
O thou which able art to take to taske all
(Pox! what will rythme to that?) oh, I'me a raskall,

1656

John Philips' Sportive Wit (1656) is chock-full of bleepos. Here's some extracts.

Here 's a Health to my Lady Kent,
that hath a bounsing C —--;
And to my Lord her husband.
that tickl'd my Lady Hunt.

-

These are they bear the sway
And keep the money;
Which he may better do,
Than his wife's ---

-

She hath a buttock plump,
Keep but thy T--- whole:
She will hold up the rump
With her black A --- hole.

-

About this T--- there stuck
Many a broken plum,
All fritter'd with a fart
Which came out of her bum,
And made it smart.

-

Take a Lady in the grasse,
Clap her ---
--- her well and let her passe;
Upon the bed then let her tumble,
Put it in,
Put it in she'l never grumble.

-

And you shall never gain a penny,
But still they will be plucking.
And think that they shall never have
Their bellies full of ---.

-

Come husband, away with this filthy curre,
It makes my flesh to rise,
He left off all, and to her did fall,
And slipt between her ---

-

On Tobacco.

WHen I do smoak my nose with a pipe of Tobacco after a feast,
Then down let I my hose, and with paper do wipe mine — like a beast.
It so doth please my minde,
It doth so case behinde,
For to wipe,
For to wipe my tewel.
Tobacco's my delight,
So 't is mine to sh —
Oh fine smack,
Oh brave cack my jewel.


Searching Early English Books Online, I've found an earlier typo-bleepo.

1651

James Smith's The Loves of Hero and Leander a mock poem : with marginall notes, and other choice pieces of drollery (page 14, EEBO):

He tooke him to a trusty rock,
And stript him to the ebon nock.
And being naked look't like Mars,
With purple scab upon his A---

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Earlier by a few years, though not competing with 50 shades ;) –  Jon Hanna Feb 8 '13 at 19:33
    
@JonHanna: True! The Language Log post from your other comment has some more early typo-bleeping: a 1680 As Maggots, in some T---rd, ingendring breed and a 1688 Bl---d and W--nds. –  Hugo Feb 8 '13 at 20:20
    
But it's from a later edition, so they can't be sure whether the bleeps are from the original, or later. –  Jon Hanna Feb 8 '13 at 23:02
    
Do you mean the 1680, 1688 or both? –  Hugo Feb 9 '13 at 7:25
    
My mistake, I was misreading those specifically on F———— as referring to all such forms. –  Jon Hanna Feb 10 '13 at 2:29
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This topic has come up at the Language Log, with the earliest found that was clearly of the date (and earlier may have been censored in a later printing) being:

... That about ſix a clock Minton came to the George Tavern, enquired for Number 4. and was ſhewed into the room where Rigby was, and the conſtable and his aſſiſtance were placed into a room adjoyning; Rigby ſeemed much pleaſed upon Mintons coming, and drank to him in a glaſs of Wine and kiſt him, took him by the Hand, put his Tongue into Mintons mouth, and thruſt Mintons hand into his (Rigby) Breeches, saying, He had raiſed his Lust to the higheſt degree, Minton thereupon askt, How can it be, a Woman was only fit for that, Rigby anſwered, Dam’em, they are all Poxt, I’ll have nothing to do with them. Then Rigby ſitting on Mintons Lap, kiſt him ſeveral times, putting his Tongue into his Mouth, askt him, if he ſhould F————— him, how can that be askt Minton, I’ll ſhow you anſwered Rigby, for it’s no more than was done in our Fore fathers time; and then to incite Minton thereto further ſpake moſt Blaſphemous words, and ſaid, That the French King did it, and the Czar of Muſcovy made Alexander, a Carpenter, a Prince for that purpoſe, and affirmed, He had ſeen the Czar of Muſcovy through a hole at Sea, lye with Prince Alexander. Then Rigby kiſt Minton ſeveral times, putting his Tongue in his Mouth, and taking Mintonin his arms, wiſht he might lye with him all night, and that his Luſt was provoked to that degree, he had —————— in his Breeches, but notwithſtanding he could F—————— him; Minton thereupon ſaid, ſure you cannot do it here, yes, anſwered Rigby, I can and took Minton to a corner of the Room, and put his hands into Mintons Breeches, deſiring him to pull them down, who anſwered he would not, but he (Rigby) might do what he pleaſed; thereupon Rigby pulled down Mintons Breeches, turn’d away his ſhirt, put his Finger to Mintons Fundament, his hand behind him, and took hold of Rigbys Privy Member, and ſaid to Rigby; I have now diſcovered your baſe inclinations, I will expoſe you to the world, to put a ſtop to theſe Crimes; and thereupon Minton gave a ſtamp with his foot, and cry’d out Weſtminſter; then the Conſtable and his Aſſiſtance came into the Room, and ſeized Rigby ...

From "An Account of the PROCEEDINGS against Capt Edward Rigby, At the Sessions of Goal Delivery, held at Justice-Hall in the Old-Bailey, on Wednesday the Seventh Day of December, 1698, for intending to Commit the Abominable SIN of SODOMY, on the Body of one William Minton".

As you can see, it mixes the full and partial obscuration of words. Interestingly it partially censors fuck, but fully censors whatever term was used to describe what he had in his breeches.

Censoring parts of spells or names goes back to Egyptian hieroglyphics, at least.

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+1, but that's a difficult diſcuffion with the long eſſeſ. –  Mr Lister Feb 8 '13 at 16:45
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I don't think it's what he had in his breeches; it's what he had done in his breeches. –  Andrew Leach Feb 8 '13 at 16:50
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Can you expound more on the hieroglyphics angle? –  Felix Goldberg Feb 8 '13 at 19:00
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this is the underlying story to this excerpt: rictornorton.co.uk/eighteen/molly2.htm –  luksen Feb 9 '13 at 0:39
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@luksen I didn't know of this case, thanks. The quote from the Earl of Rochester in that page can't help but remind me of the opening monologue of the biopic about him: "Ladies, an announcement. I am up for it. All the time. That is not a boast or an opinion. It is bone-hard medical fact. I put it round, you know. And you will watch me putting it round and sigh for it. Don't. It is a deal of trouble for you, and you are better off watching and drawing your conclusions from a distance, than you would be if I got my tarse up your petticoats. Gentlemen, do not despair. I am up for that as well." –  Jon Hanna Feb 9 '13 at 1:08
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