“There She Blows!” Flatulence in Old English

“There She Blows!” Flatulence in Old English

My innards have been a bit off lately, which has made me wonder about the Old English terms for ‘flatulence.’ And so I have put together a very short-winded post on my findings. The OE equivalent of our ‘flatulence, gas, wind’ then was simply the common word for ‘wind,’ to wit, wind, the corresponding adjective being windig ‘windy.’ To disambiguate, one could also use the phrase wambe wind lit. ‘wind of the belly,’ or windig wamb lit. ‘windy belly,’ or windig ǣðm lit. ‘windy exudation,’ or windig āþundenness lit. ‘windy swelling’ (i.e., a feeling of bloatedness accompanied by wind):

gif seo wamb bið windes full (Lch ii 224, 34) ‘if he is flatulent,’ lit. ‘if the belly is full of wind,’
gif se utgang sie windig and wæterig (Lch ii 236, 6) ‘if the evacuation is marked by flatulence and diarrhea,’ lit. ‘if the out-going be windy and watery.’

The use of the common word for ‘wind’ to mean also ‘flatulence’ may have been a Proto-Germanic inheritance, cf. e.g., Old Norse vindgangr ‘flatulence’ (lit. ‘wind-going’).

An alternative OE construction was bēon forblāwen ‘to be distended with wind, to be flatulent:’

gif mann sie innan forblawen (Lch II (2 Head) 34) ‘if one is flatulent,’
gif mann sie forblawen (Lch II (2) 34.2.5) ‘if one is flatulent.’

The literal sense of the past participle forblāwen was ‘blown away’ or ‘blown violently,’ and the verb forblāwan could be used more generally of a driving wind or of the sea becoming stirred up by the wind.

There was also the equivalent of our more homely verb to fart, unattested until the thirteenth century, but it must have been *feortan in OE, as shown by the extant verbal noun feorting (extant once as a gloss) ‘act of breaking wind, farting.’ Cognates can be found in the other early Germanic languages: Old High German ferzan, Old Norse freta, < late Proto-Germanic *fertana / *fretana ‘to fart.’ In fact, the verbal root appears to go back to Proto-Indo-European: cf. Sanskrit párdati ‘(he) farts,’ Greek pérdō / pérdomai ‘I fart,’ Russian perdet’ ‘to fart,’ Lithuanian pérsti ‘to fart.’ In addition to feorting, a noun *feort ‘fart’ vel sim. likely existed as well, cf. Old High German firz ‘fart’ (variant furz) and Old Norse fretr ‘fart.’

And lastly, a synonym of feorting was fīsting (extant twice as a gloss) ‘the act of breaking wind, farting’ (no etymological connection with feasting, by the way). The word seems to be a derivative of a (lost?) noun *fīst, cf. Middle High German vīst ‘fart’ (< vīsen ‘to fart,’ cf. Old Norse físa ‘to fart’).

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