The titles on the shelves of the self-help section at a bookstore caught me off guard.
The first book I noticed was The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, by Mark Manson.
The book was prominently displayed and it had a bright orange cover. It was hard to miss.
Other books on the shelves included Unfu*k Yourself, by Gary John Bishop, Unlearn: 101 Life Lessons Without the Bullsh*t, by Humble The Poet and Calm the F*ck Down, by Sarah Knight.
Knight is also the author of Get Your Sh*t Together and The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck, other titles which were also available on the shelves.
In each case, an asterisk was used on a word which is considered a swear word or an obscenity.
The star-like symbol has become a literary fig leaf, covering the stark nakedness of certain words.
This was not the reason the symbol was created.
The asterisk symbol is said to have originated more than 2,000 years ago.
At that time, Aristarchus of Samothrace, a scholar of Homeric poetry and the librarian at the Library of Alexandria, used the symbol to mark missing lines in text.
Later, the symbol was also used to emphasize a part of text.
Today it is sometimes used as a footnote symbol.
In sports, an asterisk is used to indicate that a record may be tainted or may require some further explanation.
And now, the symbol also appears in certain words on book covers.
In the past, words with asterisks would have been considered taboo and extremely vulgar and obscene.
If I had used such language when I was growing up, I would have had my mouth washed out with soap. But that was quite a few years ago.
Standards and societal norms have changed.
Obscenities would still cause raised eyebrows if they were uttered by Queen Elizabeth II or a member of the clergy, or if a mayor or premier used such language in a formal meeting or during an official announcement.
But in other settings, these words have become commonplace.
They might still be considered crude, but much of the shock value is gone.
In fact, these words can be heard on some mainstream television shows.
Because of this, I wonder why some letters in these words are replaced with asterisks.
It’s a feeble gesture at best.
Readers know the words one is trying to disguise. They know whether the asterisk is supposed to be a U, a C, an I or any other letter.
What’s more, readers have seen these words and others in print for many years.
They have been used — without the asterisks — in books, including some literary classics.
This double standard leaves me puzzled. Why is it okay to use these words without asterisks within the pages of the book but not on the cover?
(It is possible to find some books with obscenities in the title where asterisks do not appear, but these seem to be the exception.)
The self-help books I mentioned earlier would be no more or less helpful if the asterisks in their titles were removed and the words were printed out in full.
The content would not change, nor would the books’ messages.
And considering how often we hear these words in everyday speech, would you notice or care if the asterisks were gone and the obscenities were displayed in all their naked glory?
John Arendt is the editor of the Summerland Review.
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