On the trustworthiness of farts


As four-letter F-words go, fart is pretty tame. That in itself is remarkable, considering how closely related farting is to shitting. Surely life is full of phenomena both offensive and ephemeral for which fart (or a dysphemism thereof) would make an excellent metaphor, don’t you think?

Yet, although the Oxford English Dictionary claims that fart is “not now in decent use,” censoring fart is almost never necessary. Euphemisms for fart are outnumbered by those for shit manyfold, and one could even submit that the more colloquial ones—cut one, let one rip—are no more euphemisms than straightforward substitutions to add colour to speech or text. Insults involving fart are relatively few and innocuous, the most common being artsy fartsy and old fart, where the old is arguably more semantically important. Compare queef, which is quite an effective insult: “He said that? What a queef!”

What accounts for our tolerance for fart? Maybe it just doesn’t sound offensive enough. (It has a vaguely onomatopoeic ring, although the word has Indo-European origins that go way back.) Or maybe we can’t stay mad when we talk about farts because they’re hilarious.

In “Why Flatulence is Funny,” professor of philosophy James S. Spiegel offers an erudite ten-page analysis [1]:

First, flatulence is humorous because it produces a sudden sense of superiority. As a social taboo, passing gas signifies a lack of self-control and, thus, diminished dignity. This perception of the other’s diminished dignity results in the psychological effect that Hobbes terms ‘sudden glory’. The effect is most pronounced when the person involved holds a position of public prestige or high standing, since the equalizing effect of their flatulence represents a more dramatic shift of perception….

Flatulence is also funny because of multiple incongruities it presents. One of these regards social context. Except for the bathroom, the socially designated area for excretory functions, flatulence is out of place. This is especially so at formal occasions such as weddings, academic lectures, or newscasts…. Flatulence also often contradicts the dignity of social standing….

Lastly, flatulence prompts laughter because, being socially taboo in most contexts, the phenomenon invites a release of nervous energy in the form of laughter among those who witness it. This nervous energy is attributable at least in part to the fact that we all share a similar fear – and perhaps some painful memories – of passing gas in a very public and therefore embarrassing way.

Having seen many a months-old baby laugh at his or her own farts, I can’t help wondering if it’s more fundamental: perhaps the combination of the sensation, sound, and smell simply makes farts inherently and universally funny.

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.

The perceived harmlessness of fart in contrast to the vulgarity of shit makes the evolution and acceptability of shart interesting to follow. Shart has had an Urban Dictionary entry since 2003 but has seen more common use in the past handful of years. When Al Roker admitted in a 2013 interview to having pooped his pants at a White House event shortly after his gastric bypass surgery, online media were quick to label the incident a shart, and in 2014 Comedy Central ran its first Shart Week, its answer to the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week. It would seem that media reluctant to overtly use shit are not as shy about using shart. Because shart has such an obvious meaning and so succinctly fills a niche in our language, I’m inclined to believe it’s here to stay—although apparently it hasn’t yet gained enough momentum for the business behind shart.com to rebrand itself.

[1] James S. Spiegel. “Why Flatulence Is Funny,” Think 12 (35): 15–24. doi:10.1017/S1477175613000158.

[2] David Bub, Susannah L. Rose, and W. Douglas Wong. 100 Questions & Answers about Colorectal Cancer. Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning, 2007.

15 thoughts on “On the trustworthiness of farts

  1. Phillip Minden December 29, 2014 / 5:22 pm

    I’ve seen Germans shy from using the word ‘fart’ in English. This is doubtless because German has both ‘Pups(er), pupsen’, which is about on the level of E ‘wind’, but not even euphemistic, and ‘Furz, furzen’, which is more vulgar than ‘Pups’ and, more to the point, than its English cognate.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Chips December 29, 2014 / 10:45 pm

      Not to mention the obvious for Germans, that fahrt as part of the verb fahren has far more prosaic meanings.

      And “artsy fartsy”? In Australian the equivalent, surely, is arty farty

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thomas Staudinger December 30, 2014 / 12:55 pm

      As an Austrian that’s exactly how I feel about the word “fart” 😉

      In Austria we also have the word “Schaß” for a fart, which is obviously very close to “Scheiße” but not quite as vulgar, at least not in my mind^^

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Four Conlin' Birds (@GramrgednAngel) December 29, 2014 / 6:26 pm

    Fascinating exploration. My Encarta World English Dictionary (1999) avers that “fart” is “offensive slang” and “taboo” when used in reference to a person. Even so, it includes a reference for “fart around” — albeit with that “slang offensive” warning label.

    I laughed when I read it. I’m fucked.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Stan Carey December 30, 2014 / 11:22 am

    A very entertaining and edifying post. My brother and I agree that the “sudden glory” described is available also to the farter, not just the fartee. Of course, Spiegel’s discussion focuses on polite society and formal situations; flatulence among peers in casual contexts, far from being automatically “out of place”, can be a source of no little amusement, however inexplicable it might ultimately be.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. schrisomalis December 31, 2014 / 4:49 am

    In the 1980s, I learned on the schoolyard that the four unspeakable words were fart, piss, shit, and fuck. How much I had to learn …

    But, if ‘fart’ is vulgar, it doesn’t have an obvious substitute – ‘toot’, I suppose? One can ‘be flatulent’ or ‘flatulate’ or ‘break wind’, but what does one expel when one does so?

    You’re right of course that the OED lists it as ‘not in decent use’, but that entry hasn’t been fully updated since its 1895 original – high time that the old farts at Oxford got on that, don’t you think?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Stan Carey December 31, 2014 / 10:01 am

      As young children my sister and I used the cartoonishly onomatopoeic bang as noun and verb before switching to fart, which we probably picked up at school. Fart seemed ruder, but maybe not enough other people around us were using bang to persist with it. We had cousins (also Irish, but from the east side of the country) who used scruff (or was it scuff?), again as noun and verb.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Adrian Morgan January 1, 2015 / 11:50 pm

      If we dare to invent a word, perhaps “flatulate” could be shortened to “flattle”, for both the act and the product. It has echoes of “rattle” and “flutter”. “I’m flattled” could then become a sarcastic phrase in opposition to “I’m flattered”, meaning, “I feel as if you have just farted in my face”.

      One disadvantage is that there exist people whose surname is Flattle, and I would not envy them.

      I also considered “flubble”, combining “flatulent” with “bubble”. A search reveals that people have periodically re-invented a word “flubble”, with a variety of meanings, but no evidence that any of them are in widespread use.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Morgan January 2, 2015 / 8:34 am

      What one expels is “flatus”.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Adrian Morgan December 31, 2014 / 2:38 pm

    Regarding the Indo-European origins, I know PIE had two words for farts (source), and was under the impression that one of those words was inanimate and the other animate (a fart being a borderline case of having a life of its own), but I can’t remember where I read that. Treat as unsubstantiated rumour.

    The odd thing about the English word “fart” is that there is no polite synonym that isn’t a euphemism. “Fart” belongs firmly to the register of the playground (itself quite a good euphemism for vulgar vocabulary, no?), and feels odd to use in polite conversation, but the language offers no concise alternative. “Make a bubble” (or something much like it) was the euphemism of choice when I was a young child; I didn’t encounter “fart” before school.

    It came as a shock when I learned that the protagonist in the computer game Podd (which was marketted almost exclusively at the school computer room) could fart. Of course, I would never have thought of trying to make him do so, but my classmates did.

    When my classmates learned about Jupiter being a gas giant, “to do a Jupiter” became slang for letting out an exceptionally big fart. This lasted for probably a few days. I love the irony that a word which was once the name of a god was reduced to a slang term for farting: the ultimate example of coming down in the world.

    Finally, I’d like to say that any school teacher who reprimands a student for farting, or who requires a student to apologise for farting, should be burned at the stake with copious quantities of flammable gas. If anyone ought to be reprimanded, it is the students who failed to have the self-control not to laugh.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. יובל פינטר January 1, 2015 / 9:54 pm

    Well, and of course there’s the Monty Python Frenchman’s “I fart in your general direction”, from The Holy Grail.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Adrian Morgan January 2, 2015 / 12:14 am

      On the topic of flatulence in popular culture, the whizzpopping of Roald Dahl’s BFG is not to be forgotten.

      Actually, there’s a lot to be said about that. It’s a fictional example of cultural relativism which parallels examples from the real world, perhaps the most famous of which is slurping being considered polite in Japan. Children can and do make the connection (I did). It’s also notable that the story portrays the Queen of England as sufficiently enlightened to appreciate said cultural relativism. I don’t know her personally so I can’t comment on whether this is realistic or just royalist propoganda…

      Liked by 1 person

  7. bookwurm777 February 1, 2015 / 12:48 am

    FART n. gas, flatulence, *barking spider, *ill wind, *call of the wood duck.
    FART v. pass gas, *cut one, *rip one, *let her rip, *cut the cheese, *break wind.
    All of the above are in Roget’s Superthesaurus, * are slang. My favorites are “If your butt’s a wind instrument, then a fart is a whole note” or “That’s just my butt talking shit.”

    Liked by 1 person

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