Monday, March 2, 2009


bowdlerize [BODE-lə-rīz]
v. to expurgate (a written work) by removing or modifying passages considered vulgar or objectionable

[Eponym for Thomas Bowdler (1754-1825), who published an expurgated ("cleansed of moral offensiveness") edition of Shakespeare in 1818.]

While the word bowdlerize is not commonly used today, bowdlerization is still a common practice. It is replacing the objectionable or offensive words in a work of literature or play or film and either with less offensive words or euphemisms or simply erasing them from the dialog. I was watching Martin Scorsese's film Goodfellas on basic cable a few weeks ago and noticed all the cussing had been bowdlerized. This was the dialog patrons in movie theaters heard:

Spider: Why don't you go fuck yourself, Tommy?
Jimmy Conway: Whoa! I don't believe what I'm hearing. This kid's got a lotta fuckin' balls! Hey Spider, this is for you.
[tosses money on the table]
Jimmy Conway: That's the way. You don't take no shit from nobody.

After A&E bowdlerized that scene, this is what basic cable viewers heard:

Spider: Why don't you go freak yourself, Tommy?
Jimmy Conway: Whoa! I don't believe what I'm hearing. This kid's got a lotta freakin' guts! Hey Spider, this is for you.
[tosses money on the table]
Jimmy Conway: That's the way. You don't take no stuff from nobody.

I'm not sure when freakin' came into contemporary English as a euphemism ("a mild, indirect, or vague expression for one thought to be offensive, harsh, or blunt") for the negative intensifier fuckin'. However, freaking and fricking are not only used in bowdlerized films, people commonly use those terms in ordinary discourse in place of what they feel is offensive, either to themselves or to the person with whom they are talking.

As a child, the most common euphemism for fuck that I heard was fudge. Other common ones were darn for damn, stuff for shit, heck for hell, and son of a gun for son of a bitch. The problem with those euphemisms is they lose the intensity and negativity that a person is trying to get across by saying the actual cuss words.

What the fudge?! has no heft to it. Freak and frick, while stronger than fudge, also lack the emotive qualities of the original. However, in the last 20 years, new and better euphemisms have come into our lexicon to bowdlerize speech. The best of these are ess for shit and eff for fuck, as well as essing and effing.

The first place I recall hearing the first-letter euphemisms was on the Howard Stern radio show. Outside of the markets in which his program was heard, Stern first became famous because of his conflicts with the Federal Communications Commission over indecent language. The FCC fined his company $1.6 million from 1992-94 because cuss words made it over the air. (Before he left broadcast media for satellite radio, he accumulated fines over $7.5 million.) In order to speak freely, but not get fined so much, Stern and his cohorts started replacing fuck with eff and shit with ess. That caught on with his audience and now is heard on youth-oriented radio programs all over the country, as well as in common speech. When someone says "What the eff are you talking about?" that has all the intensity of saying, "What the fuck are you talking about?"

Before people started effing around and essing with you, there existed the expressions the f-word, the s-word, the c-word (cunt) and the b-word (bitch). These terms were used only to quote what someone else had said: "He called her the b-word." You couldn't effectively replace the actual curse words with those terms. What Stern and his friends did was to drop -word from the expression, so someone could say on the radio, "You are an effing cee!" In more recent years, the n-word has become a common way to quote someone who said the word nigger, but is not used as a euphemism for it.


Travis said...

I really loved the photo of Beetlejuice on your blog today! That little eff-ing monkey cracks me up every time. "Eff Jackie!"
Fa Fa Fooey!

Lexicon Artist said...

Thanks. To me, Beet symbolizes everything that was great about the Howard Stern Show. Every time he was on, it was laugh-out-loud funny. I loved the stories of Beet going on the road with the other wack-packers and being a complete drunk nut. I never bought Sirius, so I miss that program.

By the way, I should have made reference to Eff Jackie!, as you did. I think that was the name of his "comedy" record.

Artie Lange lives! (For now!)