What the @#$%! is a Grawlix?

January 22, 2011

Do you regularly refer to things as a doohickey, doodad, thingamajig, whatchamacallit, gizmo, or whoseamajigger?  Are you Hawaiian, in which case “dakine” is your word of choice for describing everything that you don’t know the name of, and the majority of things that you do know?  Well, keep on reading blog visitor, ’cause I’ve compiled a short list of 5 things you didn’t know the name of (or always wondered about, but were too lazy to research).

1.  Grawlix

Punctuation marks used in place of profanities are called Grawlixes.  This term was coined by Mort Walker, an American cartoonist best known for his “Beetle Bailey” and “Hi and Lois” cartoon strips found in pretty much every newspaper in America.  Along with Grawlix, He also came up with Plewds (Flying sweat droplets that appear around a character’s head when working hard or stressed), Squeans (Little starbursts or circles that signify intoxication, dizziness, or sickness), Briffits (Clouds of dust that hang in the spot where a swiftly departing character or object was previously standing), and many others.  Click here to see his entire Lexicon of Comicana.

2. Yoke

Yeah, not the kind that you use to harness oxen or slave labor.  This kind keeps your six packs of beer together after you throw them into the bed of your truck or pull them from a cool mountain stream.  Yoke’s are also frequently found hobbling penguins, ducks, sea turtles, and dolphins, so cut those things up before you throw them in the trash.  The six pack rings in most common use today are the descendants of an original design by ITW Hi-Cone, which first introduced them in St. Louis, Missouri in the summer of 1960.  Within 10 years, plastic rings had completely replaced the paper and metal based holders then common in the market.

3.  Octothorp

More commonly known as:  Pound, Hex, Number, Square, Hash, and comment sign.  In the US, pound and number are the most popular names.  On standard US keyboard layouts, the # symbol is Shift+3.  On standard UK keyboards, Shift+3 generates the pound currency symbol (£).  The Americans adopted the name pound because of this substitution when US keyboards were first made.  The term octothorp was coined by Bell Labs engineers in the 1960s.  Lauren Asplund, of AT&T Bell Labs, says that he and a colleague were the source of octothorp at AT&T engineering in New York in 1964.  The Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories, 1991, has a long article that says “octotherp” was the original spelling, and that the word arose in the 1960s among telephone engineers.  The first appearance of “octothorp” in a U.S. patent is in a 1973 filing which also refers to the asterisk (*) as a “sextile”.

The octothorp is easily confused with the musical symbol called sharp (♯). In both symbols, there are two pairs of parallel lines. The key difference is that the number sign has compulsory true-horizontal strokes while the sharp sign does not have them. Instead, the sharp sign has two slanted parallel lines which rise from left-to-right. Both signs may have true vertical lines; however, they are compulsory in the sharp, but optional in the number sign (#) depending on typeface or handwriting style.

4.  Aglet

An aglet (or aiglet) is a small plastic or metal sheath typically used on each end of a shoelace, cord, or drawstring. An aglet keeps the fibers of the lace or cord from unraveling; its firmness and narrow profile make it easier to hold and easier to feed through the eyelets, lugs, or other lacing guides.  There is a subtle distinction between aglets, which are generally functional, and aiguillettes, which are generally decorative. The latter usually appear at the end of decorative cords, such as bolo ties, and the identically named aiguillettes of military dress uniforms.

5.  Punt

A punt is an indentation in the bottom of wine bottles.  Specifically, red wines and Champagne or sparkling wines.  White wines typically have flat bottoms.  Why?  Well, no one knows for certain, but the reason for the punt is endlessly debated by wine aficionados.  Some think that it is used to add strength to the bottle.  Others think it’s used to consolidate sediments into a thick ring at the bottom, thus keeping the majority of sediment from your glass.  Many people think that it’s there to stick your thumb into while pouring.  Some others think it’s there to take up some of the bottle’s volume so that it looks like you’re getting more than you really are.

I think the best explanation is that it is a historical remnant from the era when wine bottles were free blown using a blowpipe and punty.  This technique leaves a punt mark on the base of the bottle; by indenting the point where the punty is attached, this scar would not scratch the table or make the bottle unstable.  Modern wine bottles aren’t blown anymore (they’re made in a mold), so why is there still a punt in the bottom?  For the same reason we still shove tree bark into a bottle in order to seal it.  Tradition.

I can think of about 25 more obscure “names of things”, and I will get to them all, but if you have any suggestions just leave them in the comments below.

I’ve got ridiculous amounts of trivial junk stored away in my brain.  Check back often or subscribe up in the sidebar to be notified when I throw more random knowledge at the world.

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