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Bowdler and Plumtree

Victorian euphemism seems strangely out of place in today's liberal society, where explicit language of the Anglo-Saxon kind is accepted without demur in the cinema, the theatre, and literature.

Public use of four-letter words may no longer provoke shock and outrage (Mrs Whitehouse excluded), but instead we have substituted a new style of euphemism which is far more deadly to the language than the Victorian preference for calling a bull a gentlemen cow or a bitch a lady dog.

Murder is sanitised into liquidation. The most totalitarian states are peoples' democracies. The most totalitarian states are people’s democracies. Company losses become negative earnings. Dustmen are cleansing operatives, beggars belong to the dependent economy, and housewives are domestic executives.

At least the Victorians could blame Dr Thomas Bowdler, a Cambridge vicar who along with his friend and fellow cleric Mr Plumtree, produced an expurgated and improved edition of Shakespeare’s works.

The improvement can be judged from their treatment of a couplet from As you like It – “Under the greenwood tree, who loves to lie with me” which became who loves to work with me.

Even the Bible was not immune from the cleansing processes. As long ago as 1379, the moralists took exception to this verse from Genesis as it appears in the King James version: “And the eyes of them both were opened and they knew they were naked; and they sewed fig-leaves together and made themselves aprons.”

The publishers were troubles by the thought of Adam and Eve running around bare-bottomed and substituted breeches for apron!

Not only had the shame of Adam and Eve to be covered up, the covering garment itself acquired a taboo, to the extent that trousers were known as nether garments.

The legs contained therein were equally offensive and in polite society were referred to as benders. Even piano legs became limbs, and in certain households table-legs were deemed dangerous reminders of real legs and were consequently clothed in long white cotton pantaloons.

Lady Byron, in a statement to her lawyers about her husband’s outrageous behaviour could not bring herself even to write the word drawers.

It was too improper to be spelt so she used shorthand to write the phrase containing the offending word. Today we consider such matters quaint absurdities, while perpetuating linguistic mayhem of our own.

Let us hope that generations to come will view the late 20th century English of Pentagon-speak and the politically correct movement with the same amusement with which now we regard Victorian euphemism.

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