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The History of “Fart”

December 17, 2012
Gasoline explosions, simulating bomb drops at ...

My old dictionary’s definition of “fart” was “an explosion between the legs,” but the dictionary didn’t provide a picture of one. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The history of the word “fart” is almost the opposite of an actual fart.  The word “fart” goes back at least 800 years to Middle English and possibly beyond.  A real fart is brief, usually lasting only a few seconds.

When I was a kid, the dictionary defined “fart” as “an explosion between the legs.”  Today the definition, according to Merriam Webster is “to expel intestinal gas from the anus.”

I liked the kid’s definition better.  For some reason, when I hear the word “anus,” I think of planets and Roman gods.

I was surprised that the word “fart” had a history.  It goes all the way back to Middle English as “farten” or “ferten.”  Old High German had a word “ferzan” which meant “to break wind.”  Old Norse’s “freta” also had the same meaning.

I once knew a girl named Freta, and she’s lucky we didn’t know what her name meant.  I wonder if she knew.  I don’t remember if she passed gas a lot (she probably didn’t), but most boys that I knew passed gas a lot more frequently than she did.  I know a lot of boys whose name could have been Ferzan.

FLATULENCE vs. FART

“Flatulence” is a cool word.  “Flatulence” is the sophisticated way of saying  “the expelling of gas.”  People don’t laugh when you say “flatulence.”  “Flatulence” is considered to be more sophisticated than “fart” because it’s a longer word.  When dealing with bodily functions, like defecating or passing gas or adult relations, the words with three or more syllables are thought of as the more tasteful expressions.  The one syllable words are vulgar.  Therefore, “flatulence” is appropriate and “fart” is not.

The problem with “flatulence” is that it’s a noun.  There is no verb form of “flatulence.”  You could say “I flatulented in the elevator” or “I flatulated in line at the grocery store,” but then you’re just making up words.  So if you pass gas, and you need a verb to describe what you did and you don’t want to say “fart,” then you need to use a euphemism.

Some euphemisms for the verb “fart” include:

* passing gas

* breaking wind

* letting one rip

* thickening the air

* contributing to global warming

* cutting the cheese

What did William Shakespeare say?  “A fart by any other name would smell just as foul.”

Shakespeare is right (even if my quote isn’t).  “Flatulence” may be a more acceptable word, but flatulence smells just as bad as a fart.

*****

THE ACCUSATION OF FARTERY

As bad as a fart can be, the accusation of being the farter is much worse.  Very few things in school (or in the professional world) are worse than being known as the guy (or girl) that farts.  One loud blast (accompanied by a foul stench) will lead to years of suspicion and mockery.  I have endured hours of discomfort at times (both at school and in my professional life) to avoid being accused of farting.

The accusation of farting is so serious that a legal defense has been passed down for generations: “The one who smelt it dealt it.”

This is usually followed with “The one who denied it supplied it.”

The problem with saying “The one who smelt it dealt it” is that it (sometimes) leads to an argument over whether or not the word “smelt” is really a past tense form of the word “smell.”  “Smelled” is generally considered to be the current past tense form of “smell, but some would also argue that “smelt” is a Middle English form of “smell.”

It doesn’t matter if “smelt” has anything to do with “smell” or not.  The phrase proves that kids (who would normally think Old English is for weirdoes) would say “smelt” just to avoid being accused of fartery.

That shows how deadly to a reputation the accusation of farting can be.  To a kid, it’s worse than being called a racist as an adult.  Neither accusation has to be proven for the charge to stick, and both accusations can destroy your reputation for years.

Me?  I’d rather be called a farter than a racist.  At least then I could say, “The one who smelt it dealt it,” and have a 50/50 chance of being exonerated.

There are some things in life that a person can’t take back.  You can’t take back a fart, and you can’t take back the accusation.  The fart lasts for a moment, but the accusation of farting (if it sticks) can last forever.

*****

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From → Etymology

15 Comments
  1. Very informative post, if a bit long-winded.

  2. Wish you would write a few history books 😀 Kids get to learn as well as laugh. 😀

    • Thanks, but I don’t know. Giving kids (especially the ones I know) a book on the history of farts could be have disastrous results. Maybe I could write a book about the history of sitting quietly and getting homework done before dinner.

  3. I suspect Freta passed more gas than you knew but being a woman she was a master mistress of the sneaky silent fart 😆

    • Ha! That’s an interesting point. If women have mastered (or mistressed) the silent fart, why do guys always get the blame for it? That’s very clever of women.

    • Anonymous permalink

      Hee hee tooo cool the “sbd” or dutch oven! My grampa used to blast me bad!!!! 😄😄

  4. Interesting post. Etymology is a hobby of mine. Thanks for the education, I loved it!

  5. Very funny. I enjoyed it.

  6. Krischelle Roman-Taylor permalink

    That was totallly the best ive read ever!!!! Thank u i love it i love your thinking ur a very gifted writer thank u

  7. Ida Chaun permalink

    I have to tell you, my first memory of reading a dictionary for the first time in the first grade. This was in the mid 50s and I went to an old school…the dictionary was much older. I can still see it clearly. The definition of fart was the first word at the top of the page in the left column. The definition was “a slight explosion between the legs”. The illustration showed a juvenile boy from the waist down. He wore a typical striped t-shirt and shorts. His knees were turned outward. Between these two knees were little explosion type doodles. I have told this story for years to few believing ears. I am glad someone else remembers it also. Thanks!

    • Sandy permalink

      I found the definition of “fart” in our classroom dictionary in the early 60’s. I could never find it again. I started to believe I was having a false memory!

  8. Ida Chaun permalink

    BTW, please confirm the fact that girlfriends and mothers never fart. This is the truth, my friend Polly told me.

  9. David permalink

    Did you ever have a “farting” contest with your girlfriend
    while the two of you were in bed with the covers pulled
    up over your heads?

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