Category Archives: Offense of the Month

Tilting at Filters or the Post-Postmodern Bowdler

Offense of the Month, Fall 2020
Dr. Thomas Bowdler (1754–1825), for those of you who can’t quite place the name, was the family sanitizer of Shakespearean drama and eponym of that wonderful verb, “bowdlerize,” meaning to censor written texts either by removing or rewording offensive or otherwise objectionable terms and phrases. The first bowdlerized volume was The Family Shakespeare (1807), which omitted “the indelicacy of expression” that made the Bard so bountiful and bawdy. Evidently the author’s name on the original title page was itself an example of bowdlerization: The book, which abridged 20 of Shakespeare’s 37 plays, was in fact written by Thomas’s sister Henrietta, a published author, whom he wished to shield from the public’s knowing that she actually understood what the expurgated words meant.

Henrietta must have worked hard. Imagine reading through Shakespeare line by line and asking whether each word passes the delicacy test: is the stray interjection “God!” a form of blasphemy and can it be replaced with the word “Heavens!” or must it be excised without substitution? A modern Henrietta would surely have an easier time of it. All she’d need is a software filter that could crawl through the text and replace or delete offending words as it encountered them. Nor would that be the limit of her power. She could even bowdlerize in real time, as people typed and sent notes to each other privately from one end of a convention hall to the other.

Like what happened in early October during the annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. Continue reading