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I have always been intrigued by the English use of asterisks to replace vowels in words considered as offensive, and the reasons it seems somewhat language-specific. My (very related) questions on this are:

  • Is there a name for this process? This is encompassed by bowdlerisation, but is there a more specific way to refer to it?
  • This works fairly well for short words (f*ck, sh*t, c*nt), but how is it used with longer words, if deemed offensive (I can't think of any long word that would be very offensive, maybe that makes this a non-question)?

In my native French, words are typically bowlderized with first letter and an ellipsis: “M..., tu es vraiment c...!” (Sh*t, you're such a dumb-*ss!). It's a bit dated, though.

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Bowdleris(/z)ation seems right. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia_talk:Profanity/… –  JoseK Mar 4 '11 at 8:46
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@JoseK: it does cover it, but it's too wide: if I rewrote some text with “egad” instead of “shit”, it would still be a sort of bowdlerisation –  F'x Mar 4 '11 at 8:49
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@Cer: As advs89 commented, it's "the name 'God' should never be disposed of. By writing 'G-d', they can safely discard the paper without being disrespectful". Same on WP: "written by many Jews as 'G-d' and 'L-rd' as a way of avoiding writing a name of God, so as to avoid the risk of sinning by erasing or defacing his name.… The general rabbinic opinion is that this only applies to the sacred Hebrew names of God—but not to the word "God" in English" –  ShreevatsaR Mar 4 '11 at 11:26
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How about 'bleeping'? Although not really accurate, and not a very... scientific word, but the intention is the same, censor profanity by covering it with something. In an audio stream it's a bleep, in text it's black-out, and in lack of that, an asterisk. Come to think of it, 'black out' is also a possibility. –  falstro Mar 4 '11 at 11:40
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I think it's worth mentioning "redact" as a relevant word. It does have meaning beyond the typical government-censorship connotation. –  advs89 Mar 15 '11 at 15:41
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1 Answer

up vote 8 down vote accepted

Bowdlerization is clearly much broader in scope, as it refers to the general editing of any text to remove potentially offensive content.

The substitution of letters in profanities with asterisks or other characters was a practical solution for U.S. and U.K. publishers in the 20th century, devised to avoid the possibility of prosecution for the violation of obscenity laws.

In the U.S., 7 words were considered profane and their use forbidden in radio, television and most sorts of printed media. Those were: shit, fuck, piss, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, tits. These words are still not used on the major American television networks or in some publications (national newspapers such as the "New York Times", etc.).

One term invented in 1980 to describe textual symbols meant to represent profanities is "grawlix/grawlixes". Other suggestions for the same thing are "obscenicons" or "maledicta". These refer to e.g. old comic strips in which the dialog bubbles of characters sometime contain expressions like "@#*!%!", meant to represent a profanity.

See http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2457

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