The Grammar of Farting

“Farting is funny.” This is the first thing my younger son ever said on the telephone: profound and insightful; universal like death and taxes. Not bad for a two-year-old. I was just disappointed that the other person on the phonecall did not recognize it for the gem it was.

Farting in polite society is taboo. It isn’t OK to fart in company, at least not unless you can get away with it. There are two main ways that people might catch you out: sound, and smell. Smell is hard to pin on someone – if there are several people present, we are not good at working out which one the smell came from. (We have to resort to heuristics like “the one who smelt it dealt it.” Though one suspects that the origin on this one is self-defence on the part of the farter.) But we are good at working out directions for sound, so audibility is the usual way in which the farter is identified. Thus, a critical consideration becomes: in what company is audible farting permissible?

This is a current concern of mine because I have bowel cancer. It may or may not, by itself, disrupt my bowel function with the result of more farting. It also means I’m taking morphine as pain relief, and morphine has constipation as a side-effect, so I’m also taking laxatives. Between the cancer and all the pharmaceuticals, I fart more than I used to. Hence this investigation.

The basic rule is: farting is not allowed. But there are other rules. There is a grammar.

The basic rule is mitigated when the farter is sick, as in my case. Under some circumstances, farting when sick is allowed.

Place, and company, are amongst those other circumstances. My curiosity about place came about when the person at the urinal next to me in a public toilet farted. Could it be that farting in a toilet is acceptable? I have wondered about this even since I was a teenager, on an exchange holiday with a family in their chalet in the Alps, improving my French. The chalet had a toilet which led directly onto the eating place, and one night, when a couple of attractive young female family friends were round for dinner, the meal had been the Swiss favourite of fondue, and, as I discovered on that night if not before, cooked cheese has an eruptive effect on my bowels. There was no way they could not hear, and no option but to return to the dinner table, red-faced but acting as if nothing had happened.

Another aspect of place is: indoors and outdoors. Farting may be more permissible out of doors, where the wind can whisk the odours away.

When it comes to company, it seems gender plays a central role. Farting is more accepted by men than women. My research reveals that in many families, the men (and maybe boys) will fart with family present, and the women and girls will not – and will take offence if the men do. The men and boys will not object if others fart.

Farting is a universal human activity so it is unsurprising that it features in literature. The pairings of “silent but deadly”, “loud but harmless”, “better out than in” feature in literature of the lowest register – playground idioms – in my childhood.   It is a commonplace of cultural relativity (and racial stereotyping) that burping, not permissible in public in the West, is obligatory, to show appreciation of the meal, in Arabic and Indian societies. Raoul Dahl plays with the pairing of farts and burps in “The BFG” where the Big Friendly Giant deplores burping but celebrates farting (or ‘whizzpopping’, as he calls it) as the only fitting way to show your host how good the meal was.

Jonathan Swift called his essay ‘The benefits of farting explained’ (published originally in 1722, under the name of Don Fartinando Puff-Indorst, Professor of Bumbast at the University of Crackow ) (a ‘crack’ being 18th-century slang for a fart). His piece may be considered a partner to mine, his addressing the benefits, mine, the grammar. He explores the risk of restraining the fart, concluding

A Fart, tho’ wholesome, does not fail
If barr’d of Passage by the Tail,
To fly back to the Head again,
And, by its Fumes, disturb the Brain:
Thus Gunpowder confin’d, you know, Sir,
Grows stronger, as ‘tis ram’d the closer;
But if in open Air it fires,
In harmless Smoke its Force expires.

Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale provides a method for dividing a fart into twelve equal parts.

Books for adults are of course to be found on the humour shelves. “On farting: language and laughter in the Middle Ages” is about laughter and language in the Middle Ages, not about farting. So decisive is my two-year-old’s dictum that it is hard to imagine finding books on farting anywhere else. Books for children are aplenty, with science books and stories about farting dogs (canus inflatus), hippos , dragons, ballerinas, superheroes, dinosaurs, pirates and fish. We find an analysis similar to Swift’s (if inferior in cadence) in W. W. Wright’s Farting Book:

Are you trying to be extra super smart?
Then the best thing you can do is let loose a smelly fart!
Farts help your brain have more room to grow.
That way there’s more knowledge for you to know.

As is frequently the case, the word for a taboo activity is itself looked down upon and not used in polite company. Instead we have a range of euphemisms, which I shall not sink to mention here.

A bout of googling suggests that this whole topic – the grammar of farting – has not previously been extensively addressed. Please do let me know if you have references I have missed, or have observations of your own to contribute.

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Adam Kilgarriff

I'm a scientist who has set up and runs a small company. I'm married (to Gill Lamden) with three children, Boris (22), Maddie (18) and Raffie (9) (as at today, 28 January 2015, in case I forget to update!) We live in Brighton, UK. Last November (2014) I found I had bowel cancer (stage 5; not curable; only 'manageable'). We've been adjusting to that since (and it is what provoked me to start the blog) My scientific area is linguistics, with my specialisms being corpus linguistics, computational linguistics, and lexicography - or, best of all, the intersection of all three. Since 2004, my company, Lexical Computing Ltd., has been providing a web service, the Sketch Engine, to linguists and lexicographers wanting to find out about words, using corpus-driven methods. Customers include Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, Collins, Macmillan, Le Robert, Dictionary.com and around a hundred universities worldwide.

12 thoughts on “The Grammar of Farting”

  1. This is from Diane’s link :

    While the hilarity of farts is unquestionable, their trustworthiness is another issue. “Never trust a fart” became a widely shared tidbit of wisdom after Jack Nicholson’s character uttered it in the 2007 film The Bucket List. Since then, others have co-opted it, warning about the dangers of trusting a fart while intoxicated or while recovering from stomach flu. Evolution helpfully equipped the human body with a sophisticated bundle of nerves that “provides constant sensory input from the rectum, helping us tell the difference between gas, liquid stool, and solid stool.”[2] On rare occasions, though, those signals fail us, and the result is a literal and lexical blend of shit and fart—the dreaded shart. UNQUOTE

    This reminds me of Hugh Dennis on Mock The Week : “Past the age of 60 can you trust a fart ?”

    There’s a thing that women (not ladies) talk about; it seems that laughing, coughing and various other violent actions can cause – let’s say ‘seepage’. Any men reading this brave enough to own up ? Past the age of 60, for men (not gentlemen) the opposite seems to hold true.

  2. Hi Adam
    Beth’s brother Toby used to fart ‘towards’ Beth’s face when she was little or when she was sitting down, I think it was a technique he had developed earlier on with his cousins and older brother.

  3. There was a huge amount of Irish seepage during the last five minutes of the England France rugby match last Saturday!!! No-one cared who saw, smelt, heard ….!! It was regarded as part of the exciting victory!!

  4. Thanks for this. I suspect there’s more to come.
    There’s nothing quite like “shooting the breeze”!

  5. No discussion of this topic would be complete without referencing Joseph Pujol, or “Le Petomane”, who made a successful theatrical living from his control of his sphincter muscles in the late 19th and early 20th century. At the right time and the right place, farting could be not merely pleasurable but profitable. It just may also have inspired Sir John Harrington, original creator of the flushing toilet, since he felt obliged to leave court because of farting loudly next to Queen Elizabeth I, and spent several years in rustic exile, no doubt contemplating his own bodily functions, before venturing back to the royal presence (where the Queen’s welcome to him was “my lord, I had forgot the fart”.) But his fate was less embarrassing, than that of the lady whose horse farted extremely loudly next to Queen Victoria (or some similar figure); the lady’s apologies were sufficiently heartfelt and lengthy to produce the royal response “Pray don’t mention it; I really thought it was the horse”.

  6. From A dry white season by André Brink which I just happened to be reading at the same time of your post:
    “An odd detail: not very seemly, I’m afraid, but it was as much part of Phil Bruwer as his stained teeth or his filthy shoes or his dry chuckle. I’m referring to his farting
    He seemed to function in such a way that every change og thought, every new direction, every particulat emphasis had to be puncuated by a fart. Improper as it may be, he is as much a virtuoso as any player of the trombone. It went sething like this: …. (p 187)

  7. The taboo – in elevated circles at least – has clearly been around for a long time. John Aubrey, the diarist, who tells a story about the Earl of Oxford. When the Earl made a low obeisance to Queen Elizabeth I, he happened to let go a fart, at which he was so ashamed that he left the country for 7 years. At his return the Queen welcomed him and said, “My lord, I had forgot the fart”!

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