Word Origins: Dr. Thomas Bowdler and Bowderlize

About the famous literary censor Dr. Thomas Bowdler, origin of the word bowderlize which gets its meaning from his censorship.

People Who Became Words

BOWDLERIZE (bod-le-riz) v.t. To expurgate (as a book) by omitting or modifying parts considered vulgar.

"If any word or expression is of such a nature that the 1st impression it excites is an impression of obscenity, that word ought not to be spoken nor written or printed; and, if printed, it ought to be erased."--Dr. Thomas Bowdler

His inability to stand the sight of human blood and suffering forced Dr. Thomas Bowdler to abandon his medical practice in London, but this weakness apparently did not apply where vendors of words were concerned. Bowdler so thoroughly purged both Shakespeare and Gibbon that they would have screamed in pain from the bloodletting had they been alive; "to bowdlerize" became a synonym for "to radically expurgate or prudishly censor in the process."

Thomas Bowdler, the most renowned of self-appointed literary censors, was born at Ashley, near Bath, England, on July 11, 1754. After he retired from medicine, a considerable inheritance enabled him to travel about Europe, writing accounts of the Grand Tour that seem to have offended or pleased no one. Though he came from a religious family, Bowdler never earned the "Reverend Doctor" title often applied to him and his early years are conspicuous for the lack of any real accomplishments, unless one counts membership in organizations like the "Society for the Suppression of Vice." Only when he was middle-aged did he retire to the Isle of Wight and begin to sharpen his rusty scalpel on the Bard of Avon's bones. His Family Shakespeare was finally published in 1818. In justifying this 10-volume edition, Bowdler explained on the title page that "nothing is added to the text; but those expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family," adding later that he had also expunged "Whatever is unfit to be read by a gentleman in a company of ladies." What this really meant was that Bowdler had completely altered the characters of Hamlet, Macbeth, Falstaff, and others, and totally eliminated "objectionable" characters like Doll Tearsheet. Strangely enough, the poet Swinburne, who saw his own works bowdlerized by others, applauded the doctor many years later, writing that "no man ever did better service to Shakespeare than the man who made it possible to put him into the hands of intelligent and imaginative children."

Few writers then or now would agree with Swinburne, though The Family Shakespeare was a best seller and won some critical acclaim. Bowdler went on to expurgate Edward Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, castrating that masterpiece by removing "all passages of an irreligious or immoral tendency." He firmly believed that both Shakespeare and Gibbon would have "desired nothing more ardently" than his literary vandalism and he would probably have turned his scalpel to other great authors if death had not excised him in 1825. About 10 years later Bowdler's name was 1st used as a verb, the official definition then "to expurgate by omitting or modifying words or passages considered indelicate or offensive." Today, the word more often means prudish, arbitrary, ridiculous censorship. Bowdler himself has been described as "the quivering moralist who is certain in his soul that others will be contaminated by what he himself reads with impunity."

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