Season 2 Episode 17

Hello and welcome to Ethos English, the podcast for advanced English learners and the people who teach them. My goal is to help you expand your productive vocabulary so that you can become a more confident and fluent English speaker. Remember that you can access the full text version of the show at You’ll be prompted to sign up for my newsletter. I send it out once a month and it includes a Quizlet flashcard set covering all of the key vocabulary covered that month.

The very first book by Roald Dahl that I ever read was James and the Giant Peach. I was ten years old and I distinctly remember being in my bedroom back in London, Ontario – yes, Canada has its very own London, and the river that runs through it is called the Thames, I know, not very original, right? Anyway, I remember being engrossed in my reading – I was hooked from the very beginning – and staying up long past my bedtime in order to finish the book. There’s something about the way Dahl wrote that is deeply appealing to kids and adults. He’s funny and irreverent, that is, he’s not afraid of making fun of anyone or anything. 

So, why am I telling you about Roald Dahl? A slew of news stories have been published over the past few days about new editions of several of Dahl’s books. Puffin Random House, his publisher, hired a firm by the name of Inclusive Minds to review the text and make it more inclusive, or some would say, politically correct. References to gender, body size and race have been changed to make Dahl less offensive. Here are some examples, courtesy of article from the Guardian:

Now, if you’ve read The Witches you’ll know that these frightful characters are bald and wear wigs. In an attempt to be sensitive to people suffering from alopecia, that is hair loss, Inclusive Minds added the following sentence to the manuscript, “There are plenty of other reasons why women might wear wigs and there is certainly nothing wrong with that.” I wonder, maybe they were afraid of pissing off Will Smith?

Here’s another example, taken from the original version of James and the Giant Peach, in which the Centipede sings: “Aunt Sponge was terrifically fat / And tremendously flabby at that,” and, “Aunt Spiker was thin as a wire / And dry as a bone, only drier.” In the updated, sanitised version there’s the following rhyme in its place: “Aunt Sponge was a nasty old brute / And deserved to be squashed by the fruit,” and, “Aunt Spiker was much of the same / And deserves half of the blame.” Many of the changes have to do with characters’ physical appearance – gone are references to double chins, flabbiness, thinness, pimples on foreheads, etc. 

Perhaps even more insidious is the removal of the adjective queer, in its original, but now old-fashioned, meaning of weird or strange. It only later came to be used as a homophobic slur, that is, insult. Here’s an excerpt from an article from the Guardian entitled Roald Dahl rewrites: edited language in books criticised as ‘absurd censorship’

“The changes to Dahl’s books mark the latest skirmish in a debate over cultural sensitivity as campaigners seek to protect young people from cultural, ethnic and gender stereotypes in literature and other media. Critics complain revisions to suit 21st century sensibilities risk undermining the genius of great artists and preventing readers from confronting the world as it is.”

This article also mentions that Salman Rushdie, the award-winning author who spent much of his life in hiding after Iran’s Grand Ayatollah Khomeini called for his murder because of supposed blasphemy in his novel The Satanic Verses, has spoken out against these changes on Twitter. He tweeted the following: “Roald Dahl was no angel but this is absurd censorship. Puffin Books and the Dahl estate should be ashamed.”

As I scrolled through the responses to his tweet I saw the following one by the user Krissy’s Booked, which I found particularly insightful.:

“As someone who has experienced hair loss and weight gain in my adult years I do think the messages in those books are harmful. It sets up the correlation of if you have no hair / are fat etc then you are bad, messaging we see time and again. But we can talk to kids about that.” 

I think this is a very interesting angle. When you think about it, what will it be like for children growing up with stories that pretend that the world isn’t cruel, that people aren’t judgemental? Will our new, sanitised stories make the world safer, kinder? Or are children in for a rude awakening? That is, are they going to be faced with an unpleasant realisation?  

This process of eliminating parts of work of art that are deemed offensive is called Bowdlerisation. Henrietta Maria Bowdler and her brother Thomas Bowdler published The Family Shakespeare back in 1807. This consisted of 20 of Shakespeare’s plays which had been censored to make them family-friendly. Anything potentially inappropriate for children – or women – was expurgated from these works. For example, references to sex, prostitution and suicide were removed.

One of the greatest works of American literature, the classic Huckleberry Finn, is an example of more recent bowdlerisation. Back in 2011 the literature professor Peter Messent wrote the article Censoring Mark Twain’s ‘n-words’ is unacceptable, in which he discussed a new edition of the book which expurgated the use of the “n” word, a racial slur used against blacks, and widely considered one of the most offensive words in the English language. Messent points out that Twain was an advocate of the rights of African Americans and that he was friends with African American educator Booker T. Washington and that together they raised money to create the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama for the education of African Americans. 

Twain used the “n” word to draw attention to racism, not to condone it. Here is the conclusion to Messent’s article:

“I respect the motivation of Alan Gribben, the senior Twain scholar who is responsible for the new edition, and who wishes to bring the book back into easy classroom use, believing ‘that a significant number of school teachers, college instructors, and general readers will welcome the option of an edition of Twain’s … novels that spares the reader from a racial slur that never seems to lose its vitriol.’

But it’s exactly that vitriol and its unacceptable nature that Twain intended to capture in the book as it stands. Perhaps this is not a book for younger readers. Perhaps it is a book that needs careful handling by teachers at high school and even university level as they put it in its larger discursive context, explain how the irony works, and the enormous harm that racist language can do. But to tamper with the author’s words because of the sensibilities of present-day readers is unacceptable. The minute you do this, the minute this stops being the book that Twain wrote.”

What do you think? Is it ever a good idea to remove potentially offensive words or ideas from books? Or is this a slippery slope that leads to outright censorship? I’d love to hear your thoughts – send me an email to and let me know what you think.

Now, before I go over the vocabulary from today’s episode let me remind you that all of the links to the readings I’ve mentioned are in the show notes, which includes the full text of the episode, available at 

be engrossed in something: if something engrosses you, it interests you so much that you do not notice anything else

Who’s that guy Ally’s been engrossed in conversation with all night?

irreverent: someone who is irreverent does not show respect for organisations, customs, beliefs, etc. that most other people respect – often used to show approval

She has an irreverent attitude towards marriage.

a slew of something: (informal) a large number of things

Savino has been charged with three murders as well as a whole slew of other crimes.

sanitised: remove particular details from a report, story etc in order to make it less offensive, unpleasant or embarrassing – used especially to show disapproval

They were warned not to trust the sanitised version of events which was reported in the government-controlled media.

insidious: an insidious change or problem spreads gradually without being noticed and causes serious harm

A more insidious form of water pollution is chemicals used on farms that get into the water supply.

a racial/sexist/homophobic slur: an insult or criticism against someone based on their race, sex or sexual orientation 

Football supporters are notorious for shouting racist slurs at Black players.

skirmish: a fight between a small number of soldiers that is usually short and not planned, and happens away from the main area of fighting in a war – by analogy a short argument

There was a short skirmish between the two of them over who would pay for the meal.

undermine: gradually make someone or something less strong or effective

The constant criticism was beginning to undermine her confidence.

blasphemy: something you say or do that is insulting to God or people’s religious beliefs

The book has been widely condemned as blasphemous.

a rude awakening: a situation in which you suddenly realise something unpleasant

It was a rude awakening to learn after I left home that I wasn’t so special anymore.

We often say that someone is in for a rude awakening to criticise their behaviour or to warn them.

If you think your boss is going to put up with that attitude you’re in for a rude awakening.

deem: think of something in a particular way or as having a particular quality, synonym – consider – often used in the passive

This survey is deemed to be a reliable barometer of public opinion.

bowdlerise: remove all the parts of a book, play, etc. that you think might offend someone – 

used to show disapproval.

The version of the play that I saw had been horribly bowdlerized.

expurgate: remove parts of a piece of writing that are considered likely to cause offence

The book was expurgated to make it suitable for children.

vitriol: (formal) very cruel and angry remarks that are intended to hurt someone’s feelings

He is a writer who has often been criticized by the press but never before with such vitriol.

tamper with something: touch something or make changes to it without permission, especially in order to deliberately damage it

I could see immediately that the lock had been tampered with.

a slippery slope A slippery slope argument is an argument in which someone says that a relatively small first step leads to a chain of related events culminating in some significant negative effect that was not anticipated.

Procrastination is a slippery slope. Putting off a project to another day seems inconsequential, but over the long term this is the difference between achieving your dreams and feeling like a failure.

As always, thank you for listening. See you next week!

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