November 8, 2018

The resurgence of the censoring asterisk


Photo via freestocks/Unsplash

Depending on your level of presence on Twitter, you might be familiar with the current linguistic practice of replacing some letters—typically vowels—with asterisks, ie. obf*scation, for emphasis in tweets.

Here’s an example from the inimitable Joyce Carol Oates herself, taking part in the new wave:

*Here’s a quick guide on how to obfuscate, if you want to learn the quick-and-dirty of basic morphology.


As a low-key form of censoring, replacing letters with asterisks doesn’t exactly take away the actual meaning of the word, or the sentence. Most people will still be able to read and understand what you’re trying to say. Consider these two following sentences:

God, why is the MTA being such an asshole?


G*d, why is the MT* being such an a**hole?

Yet, with the algorithms currently in place, such simple bowderlization gets past word filters and now, you, too, can be shady on the Internet without immediately drawing the firing squad of whoever you’re subtweeting. Some take this to as a satirical way of complaining (“If the MTA doesn’t fix this f*cking station, I may end up k*lling someone.”) while others use it as a slightly more palatable way of talking about things they don’t like (ie. Tr*mp, S*ssions, K*vanaugh). Even corporations, like Target, decided to weigh in on the fun with their redactions of certain key-words in books.

But we still all know: The asterisk hides nothing.

Sometimes, it’s best just to be upfront about things.






Erica Huang is former Melville House intern.