“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.