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There is some semantic drift about whether or not ASCII only means the original 7 bit wide subset of what later became UTF-8. I grew up with having to be constantly aware of what encoding system was used since ISO-8859-1 and UTF-8 were fundamentally incompatible while also being hard for machines to tell apart. Vi minns när det såg ut så här.


it’s a word that’s a little bit hard to use. But that’s fine. That happens in language. It sucks, but it’s because language is unfixably flawed (while also being the best we’ve got so we have to make do).

I guess I should clarify “7-bit” or “7-bit ASCII” when that’s what I mean.

Language design

If you’ve seen me complaining about overuse of grawlix in programming languages, I did mean 7-bit ASCII. One of my long-running peeves is abusing what I sometimes call “the shift line”. The line of non-letter, non-number characters that’s stuck above 0123456789 on Sholes-type keyboards: !@#$%^&*()[}-=_+?; and so on. I forget them all (I have a different kind of keyboard).

For historical reasons, language designers got it into their heads that “these ia ia ctharacters means whatever the heck I want”.

Especially sequences of them. Which means that if you’re doing Clojure dev through a screenreader and you use a thrush you get to listen to “hyphen greater than greater than colon foo open curly brace” to your hearts content.

I did mean 7-bit ASCII. Why is Unicode fine where “the shift line” is not? Why is → fine while -> is not fine? Because of the life-changing magic of semiotics. → sounds like a right arrow. ↓ sounds like a down arrow. Glyphs have pronouncable names and aren’t just sequences of signs that Sholes happened to like, signs that have had their original meanings scrubbed out and rewritten again and again in a palimpsest of blood and ink. $ mean dollars. Or hexadecimal. Or a scalar value. Or the grey, damp filthiness of ages.

Swearing in comics

I sometimes refer to the shift line as “grawlix”, which is pretty cruel to the inventor of that word, cartoonist Mort Walker.

Grawlix meant swearing in comics, which in the olden days meant drawing little skulls, lightning bolts, spirals (for some reason), dots and blots. Emoji before emoji. Fun fun fun.♥︎ You could also put the actual word (if it’s good enough for the characters it’s good enough for the readers), or a bowlderized version like “oh jeez”, or a black censor bar, the visual equivalent of a “beep”.

In the dark ages when the typewriter and the early 7- and 8-bit computers held illimitable dominion over all, comics writers started using the shift line to represent swearing. I hate that. I hate it even more when they “sneakily” tried to match up the glyphs with similar-looking letters in some sort of vulgar leetspeak. $#!&.

Hence “grawlix” for these cursed characters semantically diluted to the point of line noise.