17 April 2017


I think there are a few words, including bowdlerize, that will be more evident in the media this year as we hear more about censorship in its many forms. "Expurgation" is a form of censorship in which something deemed noxious or offensive is purged. It is often used in the context of an artistic work.

Bowdlerization is a pejorative term for that practice. Usually, it is when material (particularly in books) is deemed as "lewd."

The origin of this eponym comes from Thomas Bowdler's 1818 edition of the plays of William Shakespeare. Bowdler expurgated the plays before publishing them to make them "more suitable for women and children."

Bowdler was was an English physician and philanthropist, but is best known for publishing his 19th century version titled The Family Shakspeare. This expurgated edition was edited by his sister Henrietta Maria Bowdler.

Bowdlerise (or the American spelling bowdlerize) is now associated with the censorship of literature, movies and television programs.

You may also se the term "fig-leaf edition" used to describe an expurgated/bowdlerized text. That phrase comes from the old practice of covering the genitals of nudes in classical and Renaissance statues and paintings with fig leaves.

10 April 2017


Ouch!  You probably have used this word to express sudden pain. It may be an involuntary response but studies suggest that this kind of vocalization helps distract you from the pain.

Ouch is an interjection, a word that shows a sudden outburst of emotion or excitement. You usually find them at the start of a sentence, or all alone with an exclamation mark. Wow!

"Ouch" is not universal. Other languages use other interjections. Do you know one? Post it in a comment below.

"Ouch" is an Americanism that comes from Middle English ouche (noun), from nouche , Old French nosche and German autsch.

I couldn't pin down its first known use in English, but it is at least earlier than the 20th century.

It is interesting that researchers found that saying “ow” (a more modern interjection interchangeable with "ouch") during the experiment increased the subjects’ tolerance for pain. But hearing a recording of their own voice or someone else’s voice saying “ow” did not help at all. An earlier study found that swearing is also an effective way to increase pain tolerance.

Though I had never encountered other usages, I found that OUCH can mean as a noun a clasp, buckle, or brooch, especially one worn for ornament, or the setting of a precious stone, and as a verb (used with object) meaning to adorn with or as if with ouches.

03 April 2017

Titles in Literature

In this next installment of the origins of some book titles, we look at three classic pieces of literature.

Look Homeward, Angel is Thomas Wolfe's first novel.

Thomas' father, William Oliver Wolfe, use an angel statue as a porch advertisement at the family monument shop in Asheville, North Carolina. He sold the statue to a family who placed it in the Hendersonville Oakdale Cemetery. That statue, combined with a line from John Milton's poem "Lycidas" gave him his title.

"Look homeward Angel now, and melt with ruth:
And, O ye Dolphins, waft the hapless youth."

Wolfe's original title was The Building of a Wall, which he later changed to O Lost.  Good choice.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the play by Edward Albee (and later a film) explained how he found his title in the bathroom of a saloon in Greenwich Village in 1954.

“I was in there having a beer one night, and I saw ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ scrawled in soap, I suppose, on this mirror. When I started to write the play it cropped up in my mind again. And of course, who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf means who’s afraid of the big bad wolf... who’s afraid of living life without false illusions. And it did strike me as being a rather typical, university intellectual joke.”

John Steinbeck’s working title for a short novel was Something That Happened. But he changed his mind after reading Robert Burns’s poem “To a Mouse,” and latching onto the lines “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley” (“The best-laid plans of mice and men / Often go awry”). The new title certainly gives us more about what Of Mice and Men is about.

James Joyce's Ulysses is one of those books you might be assigned to read, and it is on that list of "books you should read." And it is rarely read all the way through by most people who start it.

Books of 800 pages intimidated me as an English major and still do today. I struggle through it and wrote a paper about it. these many decades later, I recall very little of it. I do recall thinking "Why title it Ulysses?’" The name shows up a few times (once it is Ulysses Grant) but it hardly seems relevant.

Of course, I knew it might have something to do with that earlier un-Latinised Ulysses, Odysseus, the hero of Homer's Odyssey. I needed a professor to reveal that Joyce had used an intricate (and personal) allegory of the Odyssey to build his book in 18 episodes. Each had its own style and he gave them each an Odyssean name. But he didn't give readers the names in the text. The episodes are ‘Telemachus’, ‘Nestor’, ‘Proteus’, ‘Calypso’, ‘Lotus Eaters’ etc.  Joyce's Molly Bloom is like Penelope, and Stephen Dedalus is like Telemachus.