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Clean Language

N.R. Kleinfield of the New York Times reported on June 2 that the mother of a high-school student had looked at the Regents English examinations in New York and found to her amazement that the tests contained literary quotations that had been "sanitized" to avoid hurting anyone's feelings or mentioning sex and alcohol.

A speech by Kofi Anan in which he praised "fine California wine and seafood," became "fine California seafood"; a passage from Frank Conroy changed "hell" to "heck"; a line from Anne Lamott's book "Bird by Bird" that read "She's gay!" was completely deleted. Fortunately, the New York state education commissioner has told the Board of Regents to stop altering writers' texts.

This furor reminded Rosie of the word bowdlerize. We don't use it often (thank goodness) but this seemed a clear case of bowdlerizing. Where did this word come from? Apparently it is completely incorporated into our language: It is not included as a slang word in J.E. Lighter's Historical Dictionary of Slang, but is included, along with its origin, in conventional dictionaries.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (Third Edition, 1992) tells us the word bowdlerize means "1. To expurgate (a book for example) prudishly; 2. To modify, as by shortening or simplifying or by skewing the content in a certain manner. [After Thomas Bowdler (1754-1835) who published an expurgated edition of Shakespeare in 1818]."

I wonder how many of the 1,700 neologisms Shakespeare used were taken out by Dr. Bowdler.

Redundancy of the Week:

From a reader comes the complaint that he often hears the words ATM machine on news broadcasts. He compares this extra word to SUV vehicle. Of course "machine" and "vehicle" are both unnecessary elaborations.

Let Rosie hear from you by letter (1707 Summit Ave., Suite 201, Richmond Va. 23230; by telephone (804) 358-0825; or by e-mail (repps@styleweekly.com).

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