If you are anything at all like me your head is an endless jungle full of questions. What is the origin of this? Why do people do that? And too frequently, it's what's the word for....
Well Swissmiss blogger Tina Roth Eisenberg found the answer to one of my deepest and most reoccurring wonderings the other day. What does one call the chain of random non-alphabet characters to indicate cussing?
The term is grawlix, and it looks to have been coined by Beetle Bailey cartoonist Mort Walker around 1964. Though it’s yet to gain admission to the Oxford English Dictionary, OED Editor-at-Large Jesse Sheidlower describes it as “undeniably useful, certainly a word, and one that I’d love to see used more.” As the author of the grawlixy compendium The F-Word, Sheidlower’s perspective is unique — and unassailable, if you’re wise, since he and his cronies have the power to immortalize naysayers as expletives themselves. (Don’t laugh: such was the fate of philistine Thomas Bowdler, miser Charles Boycott, and jingoist Nicolas Chauvin, to say nothing of famous typeface designer James W. Scumbag.)
Until its OED entry is solemnized, we’ll have to settle for this definition on Wiktionary: “grawlix, n. A string of typographical symbols used (especially in comic strips) to represent an obscenity or swear word.” I don’t think I’ll ever look at a character set quite the same way again.
Thanks Hoefler & Frere-Jones for this fairly gratifying answer. By the way, if you have any font or typography questions, they're your guys.