Nov 182012

Be honest—you either giggled or rolled your eyes when you saw the title of this post, or figured I’d be writing yet again about how old I am. Chances are you didn’t say to yourself, “Well, this should be a rigorous academic treatise explaining why one of the most natural of bodily functions is the red-headed stepchild of the physiological world.” (With all due apologies to Senior Smoke and other ginger offspring via marriage.) Not that it will be . . . .

So the other day I was talking to a respected work colleague (who probably would not be appreciated being named in this post) and, as happens from time to time, we the discussion wound down a path where most professional discussions don’t go: Farts.

“Why is this subject so taboo?” I asked. “Absolutely everyone does it. Every single family on the planet has sat around the table and laughed when someone has let one go. We all know what it is, we all joke about it, but for whatever reason, it’s just not acceptable to discuss in social places.”

“Maybe it needs a better word,” he suggested. We then went on to talk about how many of the taboo bodily functions have acceptable names (urinate, defecate, regurgitate, etc.), but the act of “passing gas” or “breaking wind” has “flatulence,” which really treads on the edges of the English language with “fart.”

As it turns out, “fart” is one of the oldest words in the English language, dating to the 14th century, not surprising since the act of farting dates back to when Man first separated himself—and herself (girls fart, too!)—from the other primitive creatures on the planet. The word comes from Middle English—ferten, farten was the verb, with fert, fart as the noun. It has origins in the Greek word pordḗ, which has the same meaning as it pretty much always had.

Still, no matter what it’s called, it’s a subject that universally seems to be one *not* for polite conversation.

Obviously, I’m not the first to address the subject—esteemed authors such as Geoffrey Chaucer, Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain have written about passing gas, although mostly with tongues firmly planted in cheeks, so to speak. It appears in Samuel Johnson’s seminal A Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755, although very few authors actually address the subject with any sense of seriousness. The Gas We Pass is the only children’s book I remember seeing that’s devoted to it; The Art of Fart, although comprehensive, is far from a bestseller.

Again, I don’t understand all the diffidence since we all do it—at least 14 times a day on average. (By the way, there’s some other great fart facts if you follow that link: Farts leave the body at 7 mph; they are normally composed of 59 percent nitrogen; and termites are the biggest farters on Earth. Who knew?)

Okay, I will admit that the offending smell that comes with some farts certainly could factor in the shunning, although who among us hasn’t “admired their own handiwork.” We’ve all been there, ranging from “Oh, that’s an interesting bouquet” to “Good god, what in the name of lactose intolerance have I wrought?”

Although it’s kind of the same act, burps aren’t considered nearly as offensive, and in certain Middle Eastern and Asian countries, such as China, burps are even considered a compliment to the chef. Maybe farting should be thought of as a way of saying “Hey man, that was a great meal,” particularly in a country like Mexico where many dishes are made with beans, which are indeed a reliable source of intestinal gas. Just a passing thought …

Could part of the problem be the unpredictability of farts? I mean, unless you’re my son or my buddy Bob, very few people can command their flatulence at will. Farts are not the most reliable of bodily function in a few ways—the aroma can be anywhere from non-existent to room clearing to outright toxic. They can also pop up (or out) at inappropriate moments, and you usually don’t know if they are going to be loud or silent until it’s too late. I’ll never forget one time when I was sitting in my office and a co-worker was talking to me while standing in my doorway; she was stretching and suddenly ripped a loud one. We both froze for a moment before she ran off. She came back a few minutes later to awkwardly apologize, which I awkwardly accepted.

Speaking of awkward and unpredictable, there is the whole issue of wet farts, aka “sharts” or “skidmarks,” which have ruined more than one pair of undergarments. No fun there.

Still, we all mostly agree that farts are funny—heck, it may be the *one thing* that we, as a species, all actually agree on, going back through the milennia. What impresses me is the varying degrees of the humor—not unlike the varying degrees of fart odors, now that I think of it. Fart humor can range from the simple “pull my finger” trick and whoopee cushions to more … well, sophisticated isn’t exactly the word—let’s go with “more nuanced” shenanigans such as “Who Smelt It, Dealt It” and the feared dutch oven. And of course, there are plenty of jokes.

My favorite gas-related line: “That’s about as funny as a fart in a space suit.”

I also remember as a kid looking up “fart” in the dictionary and tittering with my sister that the definition included “a slight explosion between the legs.” So maybe it’s tilting at (breaking) windmills to expect a word and an act that seems to be so base and crude to be treated properly or with any sort of decorum. Still, it shouldn’t be completely verboten, right?

Okay, I’m sensing the puns starting to come on, and I don’t want to linger and ruin my noble (gas) attempt at making a point. Ultimately, I guess I’m not saying that you should go out and light one up—although that’s certainly your prerogative. Be loud and be proud? Not quite sure that’s right posture to strike, either. I guess I come down in favor of a little less awkwardness and a little more acceptance. As I stated earlier, we all do it—chances are you may have let one go while reading this.

Ultimately, I hope this post hasn’t been just blowing in the wind.


  One Response to “defending the fart”

  1. Is really don’t know what to say–but it was interesting!

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