HOW WE DIDN’T ASSIGN A SOW BUGGERY – Adventures in Culture & Publishing

When I worked for an educational publisher in the 1990s, I was given the job of adapting an Australian textbook series for the U.S. market. The subject was science for the early elementary grades. The science was simple enough for my limited knowledge—luckily I didn’t have to deal with astronomy, which would have required me to know which constellations were visible in the northern and southern hemispheres respectively.

I mostly needed to apply my knowledge of American culture and editorial practice to the down-under context and language. For example, we had to replace animals like the wombat with animals that American kids would recognize.


A really strange presence were the dogs that apparently represented Australia’s mongrel canines. They looked somewhat like the dogs belonging to the loser types in George Booth’s New Yorker cartoons—forlorn, lumpy, lethargic. Nothing like dingoes or the cute yellow labs in American TV commercials.

geo booth dog

Australians, I found, are less squeamish and puritanical than Americans. I insisted on eliminating one drawing from the chapter on healthy environments. It showed one of those miserable canines walking away from his just-deposited bowel movement on a city sidewalk. There were even wavy lines to show that it was fresh enough to still be steaming. I had to tell the Australian editors that this would exceed the tolerance of American teachers, school boards, and parents.

Similarly, a drawing of a woman who was enjoying healthy exercise had to be replaced. Her clothes were far too sexy and revealing of her voluptuous, obviously healthy body.

As you’d expect, automobiles in the safety chapter were being driven on the wrong side of the street, with their steering wheels on the wrong side as well. They tried a cheap fix for one photo of a driver behind the steering wheel of his “lorry.” They flopped the photo, which is like printing a mirror image. The steering wheel now appeared to be in the proper place, but something felt wrong. It was the single pocket of the driver’s shirt—it was over the right side of his chest instead of the left side, where it belonged.

Another odd feature of the Australian books was their obsession with the use of sunscreen to prevent skin cancer. Almost every chapter had text or a photo caption—usually with blond children outdoors playing games like “football,” which of course was soccer—pointing out how important it was to protect yourself from too much sun exposure. This was the result of light-skinned Anglo-Saxons settling in a semi-tropical latitude. I sent several memos to Sidney explaining that this emphasis would strike American teachers and children as very strange. (We didn’t use the phone because of the time difference.)

australian kids

One experiment was designed to show the effects of the sun on unprotected skin by comparing sausages that had been treated with sunscreen and sausages that were untreated. I had to be sure this would work in North America. Fortunately it was July. Since “sausages” turned out to be frankfurters, I bought some that were made with natural casings.

My colleagues saw me in the parking lot with a bunch of frankfurters spread out on aluminum foil on the roof of my car. I applied sunscreen to half the hot dogs. Four hours in the sun turned the untreated ones to leathery, wizened, unappetizing objects, while the treated ones kept their youthful appearance.

One chapter directed the children to study live creatures. They could choose earthworms, snails, or slaters. Slaters? Research—somewhat harder in those pre-Google days—enabled me to conclude that slaters were what we would call “sow bugs” or “potato bugs” if, in fact, we bothered to call them anything.


The assignment was to make a kind of terrarium for the creatures out of a large plastic soda bottle, adding water and appropriate food. The clever names for these habitats were “wormery,” “snailery,” and “slatery.”

I saw a problem. In this pattern of nomenclature, if a teacher or student chose to work with sow bugs, that would mean observing their lifestyle in a “sow buggery.” Very few American children (I hoped) would be familiar with the term “buggery.” But their teachers or parents or a local newspaper reporter may have known the word and what it meant.

I spent a major part of a morning looking in a thesaurus and thinking about this issue. I decided we could call these terraria + live-critter devices “earthworm habitat,” “snail habitat,” and “sow bug habitat.” I sent a memo to Sidney explaining this change and the reasons for it.

I don’t know if the books were ever finished or if they sold, since I was one of 42 people let go one day after the company had been bought and sold three times, the last time to an investment company who decided they had a sure way to make the publishing venture profitable. The publisher no longer exists, so they clearly did a great job.

It hadn’t been my idea to acquire the Australian texts, since no one had bothered to find out if American schools would have any interest in a series that was, in its underlying structure, different from the usual American science program.

But if they were rejected in the marketplace, I knew it wasn’t because of the red flag of “sow buggery.”



  1. Ed Curtis · · Reply

    I do agree that the term “sow buggery” merits a red flag, but a very minor one. The word “sow” greatly moderates (through confusion) what might otherwise be a serious affront to the untainted minds of innocents. We must be vigilant!

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