1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Bowdler, Thomas

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BOWDLER, THOMAS (1754–1825), editor of the “family” Shakespeare, younger son of Thomas Bowdler, a gentleman of independent fortune, was born at Ashley, near Bath, on the 11th of July 1754. He studied medicine at the universities of St Andrews and Edinburgh, graduating M.D. in 1776. After four years spent in foreign travel, he settled in London, where he became intimate with Mrs Montague and other learned ladies. In 1800 he left London to live in the Isle of Wight, and later on he removed to South Wales. He was an energetic philanthropist, and carried on John Howard’s work in the prisons and penitentiaries. In 1818 he published The Family Shakespeare “in ten volumes, in which nothing is added to the original text; but those words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family.” Criticisms of this edition appeared in the British Critic of April 1822. Bowdler also expurgated Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (published posthumously, 1826); and he issued a selection from the Old Testament for the use of children. He died at Rhyddings, near Swansea, on the 24th of February 1825.

From Bowdler’s name we have the word to “bowdlerize,” first known to occur in General Perronet Thompson’s Letters of a Representative to his Constituents during the Session of 1836, printed in Thompson’s Exercises, iv. 126. The official interpretation is “to expurgate (a book or writing) by omitting or modifying words or passages considered indelicate or offensive.” Both the word and its derivatives, however, are associated with false squeamishness. In the ridicule poured on the name of Bowdler it is worth noting that Swinburne in “Social Verse” (Studies in Prose and Poetry, 1894, p. 98) said of him 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,” and stigmatized the talk about his expurgations as “nauseous and foolish cant.”