If you bowdlerise text, you censor it by removing or changing anything you think is offensive or vulgar. The word’s named for an English doctor called Thomas Bowdler who was born in 1754. In 1818 he published a book called ‘The Family Shakspeare’ (not a typo – apparently no one knows how to spell Will’s name so it’s changed over time). This was basically the complete works of Shakespeare with all the fun stuff taken out, to make it suitable to be read to women and children. This makes him sound like a bit of a dick, but his expurgated version made Shakespeare accessible to young people. The poet Algernon Charles Swinburne said of Bowdler that: ‘…[n]o man ever did better service to Shakespeare than the man who made it possible to put him into the hands of intelligent and imaginative children.’ (No mention of the women, but c’est la vie.)
The inspiration for the book came from the fact that Thomas’ father used to read Shakespeare’s plays to him and his five siblings. But it wasn’t until he was grown up that he realised his dad had been taking all the rude bits out. I imagine that this realisation was like when I saw the unedited version of ‘Crocodile Dundee’ for the first time a few years ago, and realised there’s a whole scene of a guy snorting coke at a party that I’d never seen before. I’m still shocked about that.
Having said all that, Bowdler’s nephew wrote that the actual bowdlerising for ‘The Family Shakspeare’ was done by Thomas’ sister Harriet. In an ironic (I think – I’m never entirely sure I understand irony) twist, they probably had to publish under his name because a woman couldn’t publicly admit that (a) she was capable of this type of work, and (b) that she understood the racy stuff she was censoring.