In 1884, seven-year-old German-born Rudolph Dirks immigrated to the United States with his family and settled in Chicago. A gifted artist, Dirks began doodling comics at an early age and as a young man he moved to New York to seek out employment as an illustrator. Before long, he was hired onto the staff the New York Journal.
At the time, the New York Journal was in a heated circulation war with the rival New York World, which contained one of journalism’s first featured Sunday comic strips, The Yellow Kid. Dirks’s editor asked him to create a comic strip that would compete.
Reaching back to the tales of his childhood, Dirks created Katzenjammer Kids, based on an 1860 illustrated children’s story Max & Moritz by Wilhelm Busch, which tells of a pair of truly naughty boys who engaged in a series of brutal pranks and, in the grand tradition of German stories for children, wound up dying gruesome deaths.
The Katzenjammer Kids, whose names were Hans and Fritz, didn’t share the same terrible fate, but they were naughty. The comic strip consisted of their many shenanigans as they made life terribly difficult for a cast of adult characters that included, among others, their mother, a shipwrecked sailor, and a school official. These adults were sometimes, understandably, frustrated enough to say words that weren’t suitable for Sunday comics.
Dirks came up with a pretty clever solution for that. When his characters were wound up and so frustrated they couldn’t think straight enough to reach for better words, they said things like “%&$#!” instead.
The term for this handy little tool in the comic artist’s kit became official in 1964, when Beetle Bailey creator Mort Walker coined the term “grawlix” in an article he wrote for National Cartoonist Society. By then the cartoonist’s version of audio media’s bleep had been in common use since its initial appearance in Katzenjammer Kids in the early 1900s. And I for one, am grateful for that.
I’m not a big fan of profanity in general. I don’t use it much either as a writer or in my personal life. It’s not that I’m particularly shocked or offended by it and I don’t step too far out of the way to avoid it in the writing of others. I’m just aware that profanity seems to be the thing I reach for when it’s probably not the best time for me to speak.
It pops into my head, and if I’m not careful out of my mouth, when I’m angry, frustrated, exhausted, and irrational. When I write fiction, I do occasionally bring a character to that point and in those moments, a well-timed, and rare, use of profanity may be the best way to express his or her emotional state.
But for me, I find I’m usually best served by taking a deep breath and a step back to think about whether or not I need to communicate my feelings at all and if so, how best to do it. After all, according to some estimates, there are nearly a million words in the English language. Even if 800,000 or so of those are essentially obsolete, that still gives me a lot to work with.
Even with all of that at my disposal, I have found it difficult to put together the right words during these past few weeks of unrest in the United States. I’m angry of course; also worried about the future of the nation if we can’t redirect righteous anger into rational conversation and actionable solutions. Oh, and there’s still a pandemic, I think? I kind of just want to say, “&@#%$!”
I chose not to post to my blog last week because I realized that probably wouldn’t be that helpful for anyone. I didn’t know what words to send into the blogosphere. I had no comfort to offer readers who are likely feeling some of the same things I am and who maybe aren’t even ready to find comfort. I have prayed a lot and have found a great deal of personal peace in that, but I’m aware not everyone who stumbles across this blog views prayer in the same way I do.
So, a week later I still don’t have the right words. Because even with a million to choose from, sometimes the right one just can’t be found. Maybe we need some creative person to invent a new term for us. Or maybe we all really do just need to say a collective, “&%#$@!”
And then take a deep breath and a step back.