What Is Bowdlerism and How Is It Used?

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

A shakespeare volume on a shelf being pulled out


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Bowdlerism is the practice of removing or restating any material in a text that might be considered offensive to some readers. The verb form of this term is "bowdlerize" and expurgation is a synonym. The term bowdlerism is an eponym—a word derived from the proper name of a real or mythical person or place—of Dr. Thomas Bowdler (1754–1825), who in 1807 published an expurgated edition of William Shakespeare's plays in which "words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family."

Origin: Making the World "Safe" From Shakespeare

A Victorian-era view of Shakespeare played a major role in the creation of bowdlerism, and not just by Bowdler: His sister also played a large role in popularizing the practice, according to Nicholas A. Basbanes in "Every Book Its Reader: The Power of the Printed Word to Stir the World":

"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.'"

Basbanes explained that later publishers of books and dictionaries relied heavily on bowdlerism, literally "expurgating" large sections of works such as Noah Webster's dictionaries. Another well-known example can be seen in "watered-down" British versions of "Leaves of Grass" by American transcendentalist and author Walt Whitman.

Critical View of Bowdlerism

Critics seem to be rather troubled by the bowdlerizing of Shakespeare's great works. More than simply sanitizing the Bard's famous plays, the practice actually gutted his works and made them far less poignant and powerful than they were intended to be. Richard S. Randall made this argument in "Freedom and Taboo: Pornography and the Politics of a Self Divided":

"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."

Geoffrey Hughes agreed in "An Encyclopedia of Swearing: The Social History of Oaths, Profanity, Foul Language, and Ethnic Slurs in the English-Speaking World:"

"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."

Hughes also acknowledged that the practice—if not the name—actually predated the Bowdlers by decades. He wrote that even today, bowdlerism is evident in other works in addition to Shakespeare's. Editions of "Gulliver's Travels," published in 1726 by Jonathan Swift, "still excise the grosser physical details." Bowdlerism is, indeed, part of a wider movement in the U.S. by groups seeking to ban entire texts that are part of school curriculums across the country, Hughes argued.

Bowdlerism vs. Censorship

Although parallels can be drawn between bowdlerism and censorship, an effort to restrict free speech in the name of moral decency and family values, there are a few important differences between the two practices. Philip Thody, in "Don't Do It!: A Dictionary of the Forbidden," explained that bowdlerism is generally an individual effort versus censorship, which is usually enforced by a government entity. He further explained how these practices are carried out and for what purposes:

"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."

Bowdlerism in the Modern World

Kate Burridge, in "Gift of the Gob: Morsels of English Language History," said that while bowdlerism may have been popularized during the Victorian era, its influence is felt to this day in a wide range of areas, such as education, but also in such seemingly disparate issues as religion, health, and nutrition:

"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 U.S. 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, U.S. publishers are now expected to omit references to, and illustrations of, foods that are high in these shocking substances."

Burridge went on to note just how many foods deemed unhealthy were removed. When the Bowdler siblings developed their list of exclusionary rules, they may not have imagined this practice would extend to such seemingly mundane subjects, or that the washing away of undesirable references could become so politically charged.


  • Basbanes, Nicholas A. Every Book Its Reader: The Power of the Printed Word to Stir the World, HarperCollins, 2005.
  • Burridge, Kate. Gift of the Gob: Morsels of English Language History. HarperCollins Australia, 2011.
  • Hughes, Geoffrey. An Encyclopedia of Swearing: The Social History of Oaths, Profanity, Foul Language, and Ethnic Slurs in the English-Speaking World. M.E. Sharpe, 2006.
  • Randall, Richard S. Freedom and Taboo: Pornography and the Politics of a Self Divided. University of California Press, 1989.
  • Thody, Philip, Don't Do It!: A Dictionary of the Forbidden. St. Martin's Press, 1997.
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Nordquist, Richard. "What Is Bowdlerism and How Is It Used?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/what-is-bowdlerism-1689035. Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). What Is Bowdlerism and How Is It Used? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-bowdlerism-1689035 Nordquist, Richard. "What Is Bowdlerism and How Is It Used?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-bowdlerism-1689035 (accessed June 6, 2023).