16

Given that graffiti has existed even before the Italian loanword became commonplace, what is the traditional English word to describe it?

The closest I can imagine would be "epigraph", however, this does not convey the illicit or vandal intent.

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  • 6
    I doubt that graffiti or scrawling messages across walls was commonplace before the industrial age. The vast majority of common folk were illiterate to begin with; paint, as a medium, would have been too expensive, and chalk would be easy to wipe off. At a guess, people would carve their names on tree barks or draw shapes with a knife.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Apr 17, 2016 at 19:20
  • 1
    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Graffiti#History
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Apr 17, 2016 at 19:40
  • 10
    Romani ite domum
    – Cassius40k
    Commented Apr 18, 2016 at 1:43
  • How many Romans? Commented Apr 18, 2016 at 14:29

3 Answers 3

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In the 19th century, the term graffiti was confined to art history and literature and stood for scribbling.

  • Judging from the inscriptions scratched upon the walls of the rooms, it was chiefly frequented by gladiators. These rude inscriptions are called “graffiti " by the Italians. Signor Fiorelli has published a valuable comment upon them. [...] Such “graffiti” are constantly found at Pompei, and are amongst the most curious illustrations of the customs and every-day life of its inhabitants. (Littell's Living Age, Volume 81, 1884)

Before "graffiti" became a common-place term, expressions such as obscene drawings and indecent carvings were used in the 19th century.

  • Indecent drawings and carvings cover the walls and desks of some school rooms, while disgusting odors from filthy and indecent appendages saturate the atmosphere in which the children are expected to breath and learn; (Maine 1862)

  • It takes all the ambition out of him. While speaking of school houses, we desire to call attention to the subject of obscene drawings upon the school-houses and adjoining buildings. To such an extent has this become, positively disgusting to all ... (New Hampshire 1865)

  • Cases have been known in which, through neglect on the part of the corporation, there was a family for almost every room; while the walls of the halls were covered with indecent drawings and scribblings (1865)

  • I am convinced that there is much ground for this excuse, for I find many of the school houses, and the surrounding fences and out-buildings, marked with obscene carvings and writings, while many of the children are shockingly vulgar and ... (New York 1867)

  • In reference to this we would say, that no marks are to be found on the walls or furniture of the school-room last ... if we except the crude drawings made by the scholars on the walls and benches, and the initials and autographs of those ... (Massachusetts 1876)

  • It appears, however, to be literally true, from family tradition, that he commenced in the nursery, and that the coarse drawings on its walls and the rough sketches in his school-books,... (USA 1881)

  • The Act authorizes a by-law for preventing the posting of indecent placards, writings, or pictures, or the writing of indecent words, or the making of indecent pictures or drawings, on walls or fences in streets or public places. (Ontario 1882)

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    History of the use of the Italian word in English aside, it's curious that some folks think the graffiti themselves are a new phenomenon, considering the many examples dating from the destruction of ancient Pompei. I reckon that casual scribblings have always existed wherever and whenever people knew how to write at all.
    – tchrist
    Commented Apr 18, 2016 at 0:51
  • 3
    This is the most accurate answer to the question. While I doubt that the everyday word for graffiti was "obscene carving", it seems that no historian took enough interest in the phenomenon to write about what it was called at the time.
    – modulus0
    Commented Apr 18, 2016 at 1:49
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    If it's old, it's art or at least cultural heritage. If it's modern, it's vandalism.
    – gerrit
    Commented Apr 18, 2016 at 15:26
  • 1
    Graffiti, of course, aren't necessarily indecent or obscene. Commented Apr 12, 2019 at 14:43
17

Consider defacement

to mar the surface or appearance of; disfigure
"to deface a wall by writing on it."

Google Trends shows a steady decline for the word since 2005.
Google Ngram shows that graffiti became popular after 1950s.

Or perhaps, it was called vandalism

the act of deliberately destroying or damaging property

Google Ngram vandalism vs graffiti shows that graffiti became more popular after 1990s.

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  • Vandalism is more general, and refers to any type of property destruction (breaking windows, etc) rather than merely placing writing, art, or other markings. It's also more uniformly negative, whereas "graffiti" is often used to refer to legal art of the same form, or by people who don't have respect for the property rights involved and see the act as value-neutral.
    – Random832
    Commented Apr 18, 2016 at 1:38
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Actually graffiti has been used with the vandalism connotation of "drawings and scribbling in public places" for so long (1877) that it is reasonable to consider it the original specific term:

  • 1851, "ancient wall inscriptions found in the ruins of Pompeii," from Italian graffiti, plural of graffito "a scribbling," a diminutive formation from graffio "a scratch or scribble," from graffiare "to scribble," ultimately from Greek graphein "to scratch, draw, write" (see -graphy). They are found in many ancient places, but the habit was especially popular among the Romans.

  • Sense extended 1877 to recently made crude drawings and scribbling in public places.

(Etymonline)

The history of graffiti:

  • Modern graffiti seems to have appeared in Philadelphia in the early '60s, and by the late '60s it had reached New York.

(British Council)

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  • Actually, the word didn't gain much traction in the US until about 1960. However, I can't recall what word (if there was a specific one) was used prior to that time. (1960 corresponds roughly to the ascendance of spray paint and "markers" for making graffiti, vs the paint brushes and pencils used prior, so that's when the need for a "popular" term arose.)
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Apr 17, 2016 at 19:33
  • @HotLicks - the term has been used with that connotation from much earlier as shown in my answer. As a social phenomenon it is certainly from the '60s. books.google.com/ngrams/…
    – user66974
    Commented Apr 17, 2016 at 19:38
  • Yeah, the term has been around, but Ngram, et al (and my memory) suggests the popularity changed greatly ca 1960. What I don't know is whether this means there was another popular term that was supplanted, or simply that the occasion/need to use the term rose after that point in time.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Apr 17, 2016 at 19:40
  • @HotLicks - I don't think there was a "popular term" simply because graffiti was not common before the '60s. Occasional scribbing in public areas was probably referred to as vandalism.
    – user66974
    Commented Apr 17, 2016 at 19:44
  • Yeah, that's what I don't know. Since I was in high school during that era I was just becoming aware of the "nomenclature" -- enough to know that "graffiti" was new (to the broad public), but not enough to know what may have been there before.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Apr 17, 2016 at 20:11

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