Word of the month: Bowdlerization

David Zapatka

Reading one of my favorite magazines recently, I came across an article titled “The Real Frankenstein and Its Author” by John Lauritsen. 2018 was the bicentennial of Frankenstein, the most famous work of English Romanticism. It was published anonymously on January 1, 1818. To commemorate the anniversary of its first publication, events and conferences were held all over the world. Feature articles appeared in The New Yorker, The Guardian and The New York Review of Books.

Here’s the quote from the article that caught my attention. “Even so, most readers of Frankenstein (its complete title Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus) have not understood or appreciated it. Most of them have read the bowdlerized 1831 edition, the only one available for more than a century, rather than the original 1818 edition, and they have come to it with the wrong expectations. Frankenstein is not just a horror story about a monster; it is a moral allegory, a radical and powerful novel of ideas. It is great literature, which contains some of the finest prose in the English language.”

Bowdlerizeverb bowd·ler·ize \ ˈbōd-lə-ˌrīz , ˈbau̇d- \ transitive verb 1. literature: to expurgate (something, such as a book,) by omitting or modifying parts considered vulgar; bowdlerize the text

2. to modify by abridging, simplifying or distorting in style or content.

Bowdlerization – noun \ˌbōd-lə-rə-ˈzā-shən, ˌbau̇d-\

Examples of “bowdlerize” used in a sentence:

“Years later, it was discovered that the publisher had bowdlerized many of the poet’s letters. “Being an iconic classic, however, hasn’t protected Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from being banned, bowdlerized and bleeped. It hasn’t protected the novel from being cleaned up, updated and ‘improved.’” – Michiko Kakutani, New York Times, January 6, 2011

“The mobs of students — and their enabling professors and administrators — renaming buildings and bowdlerizing the language are still products of Western civilization.” Jonah Goldberg, Alaska Dispatch News, “A Western disease is on the rise,” 28 Aug. 2017

“Prince the raunchy sylph eventually became a Jehovah’s Witness who would bowdlerize his more explicit material in concert.” John Williams, New York Times, “A Still-Grieving Prince Fan Looks Back on the Purple One,” 11 Apr. 2017

Origin and etymology – Thomas Bowdler, 1825 English editor. First Known Use – 1826.

Few editors have achieved Thomas Bowdler’s notoriety. Bowdler was trained as a physician, but illness prevented him from practicing medicine. He turned to warning Europeans about unsanitary conditions at French watering places then carried his quest for purification to literature. In 1818 he published his Family Shakespeare, in which he promised “words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family.” Literary critics denounced his modifications of the Bard. Within 11 years of his death in 1825, the word bowdlerize was being used to refer to expurgating books and other texts.

Where have you seen bowdlerization or censorship? Please submit your experiences, any thoughts on this month’s column or any word you may like to share along with your insights and comments to [email protected].