Disguising the words we dare not print has a long and fascinating history. From the late eighteenth century in particular, it became common in printed works to disguise words such as profanities and curses – from the use of typographical substitutes such as asterisks to the replacement of a swear word with a euphemism. When I was researching my recent book, Rooted, on the history of bad language in Australia, I was struck by the creative ways in which writers, editors, and typesetters, especially through the late nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, sought to evade censors and allude to profanity.
Typographical substitutes, such as the dash, are an old convention. As Keith Houston explains in his fascinating history of typographical characters, Shady Characters (2013), the dash was used to replace letters in curse words as early as the middle of the eighteenth century, such as in Tobias Smollett’s Adventures of Peregrine Pickle (1751). Use of the dash peaked in the late nineteenth century, including in Australia, where many a newspaper article and novel were peppered with b— and d—. The asterisk became an increasingly common substitute for letters in an expurgated word, and these days is more frequently used than the dash.