Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

A shakespeare volume on a shelf being pulled out


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Bowdlerism is the practice of of removing or restating any material in a text that might be considered offensive to some readers. Verb: bowdlerize.

The term bowdlerism is an eponym derived from Dr. Thomas Bowdler (1754-1825), who in 1807 published an expurgated edition of William Shakespeare's plays--a version in which "words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family."

Examples and Observations

  • "Long before the British physician Thomas W. Bowdler (1754-1825) and his sister, Henrietta Bowdler (1754-1830), took it upon themselves to make the plays of William Shakespeare 'safe' for innocent eyes, the wholesale editing of another author's writing so that it might be more palatable to prudish tastes was known as 'castration' to some, 'winnowing' by others. But with the publication of the first edition of the Family Shakespeare in 1807, the world of letters got a new verb--bowdlerize--to identify the process of literary expurgation. . . . Immensely popular in their time, these sanitized versions of the plays were the principal text by which England's national poet reached thousands of impressionable readers for close to a century, the dialogue discreetly pruned of any reference to God or Jesus, with every hint of sexual pleasure or misconduct snipped out. . . .
    "Some discriminating readers were outraged, to be sure. A writer for the British Critic railed that the Bowdlers had 'purged and castrated' Shakespeare, 'tattooed and beplaistered him, and cauterized and phlebotomized him.' But bowdlerism was far from being abandoned, and was adopted by numerous successors, Noah Webster and his heavily expurgated American dictionaries and William Michael Rossetti's watered-down British edition of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass among the more egregious examples."
    (Nicholas A. Basbanes, Every Book Its Reader: The Power of the Printed Word to Stir the World. HarperCollins, 2005)
  • "Perhaps there is no greater tribute to the supposed power of literacy and no greater literary testament to unresolved infantile conflicts than 19th-century bowdlerism.
    "More than words were changed. Double entendres and sexual allusions of various sorts were cut out or restated. In King Lear, the Fool's codpiece song was eliminated, as was Goneril's lament about the knights' brothel activities. Pepys's faithful and literate recording of his sexual experiences, and fanciful pictures, such as the voyeuristic Lilliputian army that subdued Gulliver or Swift's classically nonerotic detailing of the Brobdignagian breast, fared no better."
    (Richard S. Randall, Freedom and Taboo: Pornography and the Politics of a Self Divided. University of California Press, 1989)
  • Before and After the Bowdlers
    "[T]he practice of bowdlerism was already well established before the Bowdler family started to wield the blue pencil. Charles Wesley in 1744 published his Collection of Moral and Sacred Poems, From the Most Celebrated Authors, in which about 100 poems have lines missing or substituted. Subsequent decades saw 'pruned' or 'purged' collections of poets as diverse as the Earl of Rochester, Abraham Cowley, and Matthew Prior. . . .
    "Although bowdlerism is regarded as something of a joke from a contemporary 'liberated' viewpoint, it has proved far more tenacious and widespread than is generally realized. Many works lacking any tincture of obscenity, some at the heart of the English literary tradition, are bowdlerized. It is only fairly recently that school editions of Shakespeare have become unexpurgated. An American study by James Lynch and Bertrand Evans, High School English Textbooks: A Critical Examination (1963) showed that all of the eleven prescribed editions of Macbeth were bowdlerized. Most editions of Gulliver's Travels still excise the grosser physical details. In the United States hardly a year passes without some protest over prescribed school texts regarded as blasphemous or profane in some way."
    (Geoffrey Hughes, An Encyclopedia of Swearing: The Social History of Oaths, Profanity, Foul Language, and Ethnic Slurs in the English-Speaking World. M.E. Sharpe, 2006)
  • Bowdlerism and Censorship
    "In Dr. Bowdler's Legacy: A History of Expurgated Books in England and America (1992), Noel Perrin distinguishes between censorship and what he calls bowdlerism. While the former is generally done by governments for political reasons, bowdlerism is done by individuals for moral ones. While censorship is usually imposed on books before they are published, and leads to their being withdrawn, bowdlerism comes afterwards, and is a form of editing. The book in question still appears, but in a form judged suitable to what is seen as an audience needing protection."
    (Philip Thody, Don't Do It!: A Dictionary of the Forbidden. St. Martin's Press, 1997)
  • Contemporary Bowdlerism . . . and Food
    "Bowdlerism targeted profanity and sexual explicitness and [Thomas] Bowdler's activities led to the progressive sanitising (or 'bowdlerising') of a range of works--even the Bible was a targeted text. Clearly, these days the definition of 'dirt' has shifted considerably and the goals of modern-day bowdlerites are very different. Texts are now likely to be cleansed of references to things like race, ethnicity, and religion.
    "The US has seen a lot of these kinds of cleaning-up activities in recent years. They might even extend to the food superstitions of today--calories, carbohydrates, cholesterol, sugar, caffeine, and salt. Apparently, US publishers are now expected to omit references to, and illustrations of, foods that are high in these shocking substances. . . . In her account of the rampant sanitizing of textbooks and state education testing services in the US, Diane Ravitch includes a substantial hit list of foods . . ..
    "The banned substances include things like bacon, butter, margarine, cakes, sweets, coffee, condiments, corn chips, cream, cream cheese, doughnuts, French fries, fruit punches, gravy, honey, jam, jelly, preserves, ketchup, juice drinks, pickles, pies, potato chips, pretzels, salad dressings, mayonnaise, salad oil, shortening, salt, fizzy drinks, sour cream, sugar (of all kinds), tea, whipped cream. The list goes on."
    (Kate Burridge, Gift of the Gob: Morsels of English Language History. HarperCollins Australia, 2011)

Pronunciation: BODE-ler-iz-em