I recently received a birthday wish that included the following charming observation: “Thou art an old fart […] but the most awesomest anglo saxon speaking one that I know.” I replied that fart was a word known to the Anglo-Saxons. In fact, like the words for many bodily parts and functions, it goes much further back than this. It turns out there are quite a few interesting things to say about this word and some of its relatives, so I decided — even at the risk of lowering our collective brows — to write a post on it. Rest assured: I’ll find ways to elevate the conversation again. (“Mr. Shakespeare, your cue in five minutes.”)
The Old English word for a fart is attested in only one form and only one place (that I know). That form is feorting — a bit surprisingly, this is a feminine noun. Yes, women fart too, though they usually won’t admit it. But if you want to look it up in any of the major Anglo-Saxon dictionaries, don’t expect to see the Modern English fart. Most bodily terminology has been glossed with euphemism, often in Latin. In the great Bosworth/Toller dictionary, feorting is glossed as crĕpĭtus ventris, which is Latin for a “chattering of the belly” — cute, eh? The Latin crĕpĭtus is an imitative word, from which we also derive the Modern English words crepitation, i.e., “a crackling (e.g., of the joints)”; and decrepit, i.e., “creaking with old age”. I did just turn forty, after all.
In John R. Clark Hall’s dictionary (even the revised edition of 1960, ed. Herbert Meritt), it’s defined with Latin pēdātio. This is actually the direct Latin cognate given in Ælfric’s glossary, but unless you’re familiar with this word, it’s not much help. It doesn’t appear in the average student dictionary of Latin, but it comes from the pēdĕre “to break wind”, a verb which can be traced back to the Indo-European root √perd “to fart”, again probably imitative of the sound. This root also gave us the Sanskrit पर्दते and Ancient Greek πέρδομαι, with the same meaning. The word also passed far and wide, as farts tend to do, into Avestan, Lithuanian, Latvian, Albanian, Russian, Welsh, etc.
Among the Germanic languages, the word was also rather widely attested too — and anyone who has experienced a particularly noxious chattering of the belly will not be surprised at its reach. Though we can only extrapolate the unattested Old English verb *feortan, we have evidence of Old High German ferzan, Old Saxon fertan, Old Norse freta, and various forms in the later medieval languages as well, e.g., Middle High German, Middle Dutch, and of course Middle English. Chaucer, it must be said, leet fle a fart rather often in his verses. (But Norman Davis omits the word from A Chaucer Glossary, tsk tsk tsk.)
There are two surprising offspring of the humble fart. The first, thanks to our friend William Shakespeare, has become an old saw, though not many realize it ever had anything to do with breaking wind. Recall the ominous lines from the close of Act III of Hamlet: “For ’tis the sport to have the engineer / Hoist with his own petard” (III.4:207–8). Poor Rosencrantz and Guildenstern!
A petard was a small bomb used to breach castle walls or gates. The word comes to us from the French pétard, literally a “farter”, in turn from Middle French péter “to fart”. The bomb had a long fuse — think of this image and you’re on the right track — which made a sputtering, “farting” sound as it burned down. The French word comes down from the Latin pēditum, in turn derived from the verb whose acquaintance we’ve already made above. Cognates include Italian petardo and obsolete Spanish petar.
The second surprising relative is the partridge — ironic, since one of my favorite etymologists (Eric Partridge) bears that surname. From Middle English partrich, in turn from Old French pertris, perdriz, from Latin perdix, from Green πέρδιξ, the partridge was so named because of the whirring sound of his wings. What a proud bird for such a lowly etymology! Cognates include Scottish partrick, Old Italian perdice, Spanish perdiz, Catalan perdiu, etc.
All of this from the sound of breaking wind. And since it’s Christmastime, if you’ll permit me: “And a partridge in a pear treeeeeeee … pffffftht!!” Excuse me! Okay, that was a new low for Lingwë.