Working Paper No. 09-05:
How Not to Bowdlerize

Author(s):

Ross Davies

Date Posted: January 2009

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Abstract:

In his useful and entertaining book How Not to Write, William Safire tells us where the verb "to bowdlerize" comes from:

Dr. Thomas Bowdler, eager to make Shakespeare "fit for the perusal of our virtuous females," cut out what he considered the naughty and profane words. In his sanitized version, Lady Macbeth's "Out, damn'd spot!" was changed to "Out, crimson spot!", which earned the censor a place in the dictionaries in the verb to bowdlerize.

Safire is referring to The Family Shakspeare, a 10-volume collection of cleaned-up versions of Shakespeare's works brought out in London in 1818 by Thomas Bowdler (1754-1825), whose work was an extension of the earlier efforts of his sister and fellow-expurgator Henrietta (1750-1830). But alas, Safire is not quoting from The Family Shakspeare, although apparently he thinks he is. Instead, in the course of describing how Bowdler doctored Shakespeare, Safire has doctored Bowdler. Bowdler's name and -ism have long been epithets to be wielded by the cosmopolitan and the libertarian against the puritan and the censor. The story of how Bowdler became a victim of bowdlerism - or perhaps more properly "anti-bowdlerism" - at the hands of Safire (and many other scholars and word experts) raises difficult questions about when even the most trusted authorities can be trusted to report facts rather than rumors and prejudices.