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Puzzling heritage: The verb ‘fart’

By Anatoly Liberman


It cannot but come as a surprise that against the background of countless important words whose origin has never been discovered some totally insignificant verbs and nouns have been traced successfully and convincingly to the very beginning of Indo-European. Fart (“not in delicate use”) looks like a product of our time, but it has existed since time immemorial. Even the nuances have not been lost: one thing is to break wind loudly (farting); quite a different thing is to do it quietly (the now obscure “fisting”). (This fist has nothing to do with fist “clenched fingers” and consequently isn’t related to fisting, a sexual activity requiring, as we are warned, great caution and a lot of tender experience. This reminds me of the instruction Sergei Prokofiev gave to his First Piano Concerto: “Col pugno,” that is ‘with a fist’.)

Both words for the emission of wind (fart and fist) were current in the Old Germanic languages. Frata and físa (the accent over the vowel designates its length, not stress) turned up even in Old Icelandic mythological poems. According to a popular tale, the great god Thor was duped by a giant and spent a night in a mitten, which he took for a house. He was so frightened, as his adversary put it, that he dared neither sneeze nor “fist.” In another poem, the goddess Freyja, notorious for her amatory escapades, was found in bed with her brother and farted (apparently shocked by the discovery).

The words were as vulgar then as they are today. Yet even grammar proves their antiquity. Some verbs (they are called strong) form their principal parts by changing the root vowel, for instance, write/wrote/written, sing/sang/sung. Others (they are called weak) add a dental suffix (d or t) in the preterit and the past participle, for example, beg/begged/begged, look/looked/looked, wait/waited/waited. Strong verbs belong to the most ancient part of the Germanic vocabulary. Fart was one of them; however, it occurred in several forms. Modern German has retained farzen (now a weak verb, though furzen is the most common form) and Furz (a noun). In the older period, German also had furzen and ferzan. Engl. fart goes back to ferten, an exact congener of ferzan. Although it was recorded only in the verbal noun ferting, its existence can be taken for granted. I assume that the group er in it changed to ar in the same way in which person yielded its doublet parson and clerk became Clark (in British English, clerk and Clark are homophones).

Icelandic freta and frata were the product of metathesis, that is, the vowel and the consonant r switched places in them. Freta remained a strong verb, but frata became weak. Fortunately, our frat boys seldom if ever take Old Icelandic and are spared the embarrassment. On the other hand, they might enjoy the double entendre. Although part of the oldest stock, the verb for breaking wind was “popular,” even “low,” and this may have been the reason its shape varied so widely. Compare even such more dignified but “common” names as scrimmage and scrummage, mentioned in the June “gleanings,” part 2, and the names recorded for a wagon or cart: lorry, lurry, rolly, and rully, all meaning “trolley.”

An even more surprising thing is that fart is not only ancient Germanic but Common Indo-European. It has cognates from Lithuanian to Sanskrit and Greek, but naturally they begin with p and have d after r (compare Sanskrit pard-, Russian perdet’ with stress on the second syllable, and so forth) because according to a well-known law, Germanic consonants underwent a shift and that is why Latin pater and duo correspond to Engl. father and two.

The most famous plate of The Image of Irelande by John Derrick (1581) shows the chief of the Mac Sweynes seated at dinner and being entertained by a bard and a harper. Note the two other entertainers (braigetóirí or professional farters) on the right. The Image of Irelande by John Derrick, published in 1581. Source: Edinburgh University Library.

The history of fist (to break wind quietly) is similar to that of fart. Vowels in this verb also varied, as evidenced by the Dutch noun veest “fisting”, with ee (pronounced like e in Engl. vest but prolonged!) from ai. Icelandic físa preserved the oldest form, without the suffix t appended to the root. It too has excellent cognates. Apparently, alongside Indo-European perd-, the near synonymous root pezd- existed (another instance of variation!). It must have been current in Proto-Latin. The sought-for cognate in that language is pedo, with long e (its length is a “compensation” for the loss of z). The amazing thing is that the cognates are such a perfect match. For example, Russian bzdet’, as well as its Lithuanian congener, are exact glosses of German fisten and Icelandic físa, namely “break wind without making a noise.” Seeing how broad the range of meanings among cognates usually is, one can only wonder at absolute precision in such a word. In Old French, the reflex of ped- was pet-; hence petard.

If perd- and pezd- arose as variants of the same root, fart and fist are ultimately related and sound imitative, even though in the world of onomatopoeia relatedness is a rather vacuous concept. It may seem that perd and pezd do not render the sound of breaking wind. However, pezd- is rather obviously related to several verbs for whistling and hissing. It appears that everything began with pezd (quiet fisting), which developed into perd, that is, the sound increased in volume (from z to r). At least one eminent language historian set up the ancient root perzd- and allowed the recorded forms to have lost either r or z, but this is a self-serving reconstruction. Such is the tentative history of Indo-European farting, and only one addition is in order here. In Indo-European, many words have variants with and without s- at the beginning. If Latin spiro “blow” (as in Engl. inspire) is one of them (s-piro), it may be allied to the Germanic F-words discussed above.

Those interested in the subject and not only in words may want to read the book by Valerie Allen On Farting: Language and Laughter in the Middle Ages (Palgrave 2007), but should skip the short section on etymology with its erroneous conclusion. Here I will comment on several etymologies about which I have often been asked. Latin perditio (from its oblique case, via Old French, English has perdition) is not allied to the words discussed above. Perdition goes back to the past participle of the verb perdere “destroy; (hence) lose.” It has the prefix per-, and the root -der-, so that r and d do are separated by a morphemic boundary. But if Latin perdix had the ancient root with r, preserved in Old French perdriz, then its English continuation partridge belongs here. According to the usual explanation, a partridge makes a sharp whirring sound when flushed (and thus behaves not unlike a petard – not an overly convincing etymology).

Engl. petition and petulant, from Old French, have the root of Latin petere “seeks; attack. Pet “peeve” should probably be dissociated from collywobbles and the rest, but for Engl. wolf’s fist ~ wolves’ fist and German Bofist ~ Bovist (originally vohenvist “fox’s fist”) “puffball” reproduce Greek lykóperdon “wolf’s fart” and allegedly like partridge, owe their origin to the sound they make when pressed). Few people will remember that in the days of Nikita Khrushchev the only woman in the Soviet Politburo was Ekaterina Furtseva, the minister of culture. That family name made every mention of her in German media a rude joke, for the Germans of course spelled Furzeva or Furtzeva. However, it was derived from the proper name Firs, not from the German verb.

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.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of blog@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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19 Responses to “Puzzling heritage: The verb ‘fart’”
  1. Yewtree says:

    Fascinating article!

    What about the line in the Middle English song, “Sumer is icumen in”?

    Bulluc sterteþ, bucke uerteþ,
    Murie sing cuccu!

  2. Yecid Villa says:

    The modern german verb is furzen (weak). The Duden says: Middle High German = verzen. Old High German = ferzan. Farzen doesn’t sound like a german verb.(ich farze?)

  3. Alex B. says:

    I’ve always thought of “fart” as a really good example to explain Grimm’s law, esp. with Russian-speaking students (p=>f, d=>t).

  4. Benjamin S. says:

    re: scatological words and embarassment: I once gave an exam and the correction answer to the question on Grimm’s Law was “fart”. Only one student got that question right, largely because the others couldn’t believe that the right answer could be something as crass as “fart”.

    But, as Alex B. suggests, the reason I chose this was really because this is a fairly nice and straightforward example of Grimm’s Law.

  5. Karin Schelbert says:

    I second Yecid Villa. In modern German we say ‘furzen’ not ‘farzen’.
    It’s a very intresting article!

  6. mcravener says:

    Interesting entymology. In modern Swedish the verb “fisa” is the only word used for breaking wind. A modifier is when necessary added to make it a loud one (noun) “brakfis”.

  7. Alice says:

    Thank you to all our eagle-eyed commenters. I put in a special call to Anatoly (away on a mysterious vacation) and got the following response:

    “I have a rather small German dictionary here, which gives only FURZEN, but the etymological dictionary lists both FARZEN and FURZEN. I wrote: “German has retained farzen” (which is correct), but perhaps you may add in parantheses, after what is written there (now a weak verb, though furzen is the most common form). I never use either when I speak German (obviously), so a German correspondent should be trusted.

    “Scatalogical words hold a strange attraction. I am sorry to say that SH*T is also a verb of respectable origin. Should I write about it in September?”

    I will amend the blog post as suggested above. Do we have any German etymologists reading who can enlighten us further on the various forms?

    - Blog Editor Alice (who studied French so relies on other people’s knowledge of German)

  8. Alex B. says:

    In modern standard German the word is “furzen”. However, Kluge lists “farzen” and marks it as Vsw per. vulg. arch. (14. Jh.), which means ” a weak verb” (Vsw – schwaches Verb), dialectal (?) (per. = peripherer Wortschatz) , archaic (arch.= archaisch).

  9. Mikael says:

    mcravener; “Fisa” is not the only Swedish word for this, I would say that “fjärta” (cognate to “fart”?) is almost as common. The third option “prutta” is a bit more childish and perhaps onomatopoetic.

  10. Joe says:

    If you need a source for “farzen”: “Es farzt die Hexe, es stinkt der Bock.” – Goethe, “Faust” (“Walpurgisnacht”). Remants of older vowel variants can be found in German dialects to this day.

  11. Egypt Steve says:

    How could you miss Chaucer in the “Summoner’s Tale”:

    “A!” thoghte this frere, “That shal go with me!”
    And doun his hand he launcheth to the clifte,
    In hope for to fynde there a yifte.
    And whan this sike man felte this frere
    Aboute his tuwel grope there and heere,
    Amydde his hand he leet the frere a fart,
    Ther nys no capul, drawynge in a cart,
    That myghte have lete a fart of swich a soun.
    The frere up stirte as dooth a wood leoun, -
    “A! false cherl,” quod he, “for Goddes bones!
    This hastow for despit doon for the nones.
    Thou shalt abye this fart, if that I may!

    Years ago during my student years in Germany, I used to always get a juvenile laugh or two out if the similar sound of German “Fahrt” “trip” with English “fart.” For example: when renting a car, the agent might wish you “Gute Fahrt”! Which I always thought was very kind. When driving the car out of the garage, you look for the “Ausfahrt,” which makes sense, but driving back in, you look for the “Einfahrt,” which is difficult to picture … Of course, you and your friends may organize a “Gruppenfahrt,” or go clear around the city with a “Stadtrundfahrt.”

  12. [...] the meaning of the terms weak and strong, as applied to verbs, are kindly requested to read the post for July 25, where this theme is developed in connection with the etymology of fart.) It could therefore be [...]

  13. Teddy Pescadero says:

    I cannot believe that there is so much history just behind a word. And the fact that the word is almost always used in contemporary use, it’s a good idea to know its origin.

  14. Demetrius says:

    The Ancient Greek πέρδομαι and βδέω in exactly the same meaning will add even more credibility to the article. As students of the classical philology some 30 years ago we were amazed to discover that the Greeks called these activities with almost the same words as we do now (perdet’ and bzdet’).

  15. [...] Farting and participles (not to be confused with cabbages and kings). Summer is supposed to be a dead season, but I cannot complain: many people have kindly offered their comments and sent questions. Of the topics discussed in July and August, flatulence turned out to be the greatest hit. I have nothing to add to the comments on fart. Apparently, next to the election campaign, the problem of comparable interest was breaking wind in Indo-European. The uneasy relations between German farzen and furzen have been clarified to everybody’s satisfaction, and interesting parallels from Greek and Slavic adduced. Rasmus Rask and Jacob Grimm might have been embarrassed if they had discovered how fart and its cognates are being used to illustrate their law. [...]

  16. steve miller says:

    You kindly answered my query about your views on Nostratic a few months ago. Now I have a different question related to the news business, of which I am a surviving employee, employed in breaking the news.

    But whence “breaking news”? It’s not the same as the verb “break the news” and my archival searching shows an early use in Barrons, 1940.

    “FROM HERE ON IN the strategy of our canniest political Quarterback, now calling signals for his third “touchdown”, will be to blanket the front pages with “breaking news”, speak of the issues in a sermon-on-the-mount style, and try to ignore his opponent… ”

    It occurs to me that it could have to do with breaking into a radio broadcast with pressing news, a la War of the Worlds. That would account for the scare quotes since probably broadcasting jargon was just then entering the language. (Broadcasting itself being a fairly new word in electronics, right?)

    A slightly different use is “fast-breaking news,” which I find in the Lima, Oh., News in 1937:

    “Ann Sothern plays the part of a sob sister who jilts Gene Raymond at the altar in favor of a fast-breaking news story.”

    Similarly, “broke the story”

    “Attorney Stolen “broke the story” this morning.” (Wisconsin State Journal 10/5/1921)

    Again with the scare quotes – but this one would seem not to stem from broadcasting. Actually it may not be the same derivation as a reporter who “broke the story.”

    It could be that there is a “broke the story” that means “broke the news” and another that is related to the activity of newshounds such as myself.

    I don’t have an OED but from what I’ve read elsewhere (http://www.grammarphobia.com/blog/2011/09/breaking-news.html) the OED is not so great on breaking the news, citing “I have some news to break” from 1840.

    I found a similar use 4 decades earlier: “We are much inclined to hope that a recontre has taken place, and that the French journals have taken this way of breaking disastrous news to the public.” (Morning Post Gazetteer – Saturday, August 11, 1798 – London, Middlesex)

    There would seem to be a lot of shaded meanings here and I’d love it if you could break new ground on t he topic.

    Thanks,

    Steve

  17. Kim Cornish says:

    One reads: “the goddess Freyja, notorious for her amatory escapades, was found in bed with her brother and farted (apparently shocked by the discovery)”. English has an enormous number of words derived from the names of pagan gods. (“Panic” from “Pan”, “Venereal” from “Venus”, “Merchandise” from “Mercury”, “Martial” from “Mars” and so on.) Whether attributed to metathesis or not, could “Freyja” be related to “farting” as “Pan” is to “Panic” or “Mercury” to “Mercurial”?

  18. [...] 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 [...]

  19. [...] I received through OUP and privately (by email). As before, the most exciting themes have been smut and spelling. If I wanted to become truly popular, I should have stayed with sex, formerly [...]

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