As a child, I was wont to explore the family library and one of the first dictionary look-ups I can recall was the word “unexpurgated.” Likely from a cover like this:
And thus I learned that editors at some level were interceding between author and reader, removing text or replacing it with grawlix (#$*)&^@) or G——, G—–n, G*ddamn, and so forth. The difference being that when the editor removes the offending text entirely, the reader is unaware that a profanity existed, whereas in the second type the reader is challenged to recreate the elided word.
While both types of edits are referred to as “Bowdlerization,” it’s the first that most closely defines the word: cleaning a work by excising offending matter. Today, this can apply to text, recorded speech, and video. So who was this eponymous censor and where did we get the term?
Thomas Bowdler (c. 1719–1785) was a banker and student of medicine whose father, also named Thomas Bowdler, was fond of entertaining his family by reading the works of Shakespeare. Later, Thomas the younger discovered that his father had been skipping over certain sections of the plays he felt unsuitable for household consumption.
Malvolio: By my life, this is my lady’s hand these be her very C’s, her U’s and her T’s and thus makes she her great P’s. [Twelfth Night: Act 2, Scene 5]
And in time Bowdler came to realize that his father had been possessed of a keen mind able to tidy up Shakespeare on the fly, something the general reader would be unable to accomplish. So Bowdler, in conjunction with his sister Henrietta Maria Bowdler (Harriet) (1750–1830), collaborated to publish an expurgated volume of the bard’s selected plays. It’s worth noting that Henrietta’s efforts were themselves Bowdlerized, given that no woman of careful breeding would have been expected to grasp Shakespeare’s allusions.
The Family Shakespeare was a hit, between 1807 and 1827 being republished five times. No longer would the paterfamilias be embarrassed by a child’s impertinent questioning over such passages as:
Hamlet: Do you think I meant country matters?
Ophelia: I think nothing, my lord. [Hamlet: Act 3, Scene 2]
“W-W-Well…” our hapless father stammers, “if you truncate ‘country’ to the first syllable…” No, no this simply wouldn’t do.
Prince Henry: Fare you well; go.
Exeunt Bardolph and Page
This Doll Tearsheet should be some road. [Henry IV, part 2]
“Daddy, why did he call her a ‘road’?”
Now Dad’s in real trouble.
But Family Shakespeare to the rescue! All passages in reference to Doll Tearsheet have been artfully removed (although Mistress Quickly remains), likewise any conjoined and pesky questions. He also published a cleaned-up version of Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and a few others. We linguistically salute Bowdler in terms like “the N-word,” “the L-word,” “H, E, double hockey-sticks,” “Oh my gosh,” and “underprivileged,” where words are either removed, alluded to, or replaced with salubrious alternatives.
Still, to hew tightly to the etymology, a Bowdlerized work is one that has the “naughty bits” neatly pared away, leaving only that which would fly safely in mixed company, and cause Mickey Mouse no indigestion.
While much of the above can be read as tongue-in-cheek, today we have apps like Clean Reader, which render books free of vulgarity and spare the gentle reader from a spate upon the fainting couch.