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Breaking wind

Q: My boyfriend and I are having an argument over whether the word “fart” is vulgar. I say “yes” and he says “no.” I’ve searched your blog, but don’t see anything about it. Can you help settle this?

A: Lexicographers, the people who write dictionaries, differ on how to label this word. It’s variously described as vulgar, informal, rude, impolite, colloquial, and slang. The Oxford English Dictionary puts it this way: “Not now in decent use.”

In other words, “fart” is not quite quite, though dictionaries disagree on the extent of its not-quite-quiteness. One wouldn’t use it in an audience with Queen Elizabeth II, but it’s probably been heard in her private apartments at Buckingham Palace.

Interestingly, the first Queen Elizabeth is said to have used the term to remind Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, of an embarrassing incident, according to Brief Lives, a collection of biographical sketches written by John Aubrey in the late 1600s:

“This Earle of Oxford, making of his low obeisance to Queen Elizabeth, happened to let a Fart, at which he was so abashed and ashamed that he went to Travell, 7 yeares. On his returne the Queen welcomed him home, and sayd, My Lord, I had forgott the Fart.”

The medievalist Valerie Allen says early “instances of misplaced farts suggest the cultural constancy of its shame value.”

In On Farting: Language and Laughter in the Middle Ages (2007), Allen writes, “There is evidence aplenty that one could be ‘just as squeamish of farting’ in the Middle Ages as today.”

She cites “How Abu Hasan Brake Wind,” a tale in the Arabian Nights about a man who emits a “great and terrible” fart at his wedding banquet and flees. After 10 years, he returns and hears a mother say her daughter was born “on the very night when Abu Hasan farted.” He flees again and never returns.

As for the etymology here, the word “fart” is very old, with roots in prehistoric Germanic, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The reconstructed Germanic fertan gave Old English feortan, an early version of the verb “fart.”

Although feortan itself has been reconstructed by linguists (it isn’t found in existing Old English manuscripts), written relatives survived in Old High German (ferzan) and Old Norse (freta).

The earliest written ancestor of “fart” showed up in Middle English. The first citation in the OED is from “Sumer Is Icumen In” (“Summer’s Come In”), a song written around 1250:

“Bulluc sterteþ, bucke uerteþ [verteth]” (“The bullock cavorts; the buck farts”). In Middle English, the verb evolved from “verten” to “ferten” to “farten.”

The next Oxford citation is from “The Miller’s Tale,” the second of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (circa 1390): “He was som del squaymous Of fartyng” (“He was rather squeamish about farting”).

We’ll end with a comment by the linguist Anatoly Liberman. In a post about the etymology of “fart” on the Oxford University Press blog, he explains why linguists aren’t squeamish about discussing such words:

“Scatological words are always embarrassing to discuss. But linguists are like doctors: desensitizing makes them indifferent to many things that excite others. In the office they are professionals, and words are just words to them. Other than that, they are normal people.”

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