Archive for April 27th, 2010

April 27, 2010

YfL10: Some flatulence

I’ve been lazy about posting either of my columns here for the last couple of weeks, but here is yesterday’s Yell For Language column. It is about farting.

(An edited version of this was published in the New Indian Express educational supplement, EdEx, on Monday)


Petard: A small bell-shaped bomb used to breach a gate or wall.

I have been reading the expression “hoist by his/her own petard” in books for as long as I can remember. In context, it’s a simple enough expression to understand – it merely signifies that someone has become the victim of his own plot; that his plan has backfired upon him. Because it was so easy to make sense of it at first, and in time, I suppose, because I was so used to seeing it, it had never occurred to me to wonder what the word “petard” meant. I assumed (the presence of “hoist” made me think it had something to do with rope) that a petard might be some sort of jungle trap; the kind where you carelessly put your foot into a loop of rope and suddenly find yourself hanging upside down from the branch of a tree.

Recently though, I was reading an old children’s book (I forget which) in which a child asks what the expression means, and all the adults around her burst out laughing and tell her that it is an expression she should not repeat. This was intriguing, so I resolved to find out what was so shocking about the expression or the word.

“Petard”, it seems, comes from a medieval French word, “peter” (pronounced the French way, not as Spiderman’s real name). “Petards” were explosives used in the sixteenth century to blow up walls or huge gates. To be “hoist” by one’s own petard would, therefore, mean that one had been thrown by the bomb that one had set. This is all very satisfactory and not scandalous at all.

Nowadays, however, the word in French means “firecracker”. It will be noted that the one thing bombs and firecrackers have in common is that you light them and they explode. Does “peter”, then, mean “explode”? Close enough, but not quite – it turns out it means “to break wind”. Flatulence. Farting.

Perhaps this is what the adults in the book I referred to meant when they declared the expression unfit for children’s ears. I can find no other undesirable connotations of the word. But what really delights me about this discovery is that the expression “hoist by his own petard” takes on a new and glorious meaning.

In Roald Dahl’s The BFG (a children’s book whose name I do remember), the big friendly giant of the title shuns regular fizzy drinks for a special variety in which the bubbles move downwards instead of upwards. This saves him the embarrassment of burping, but it does lead to the gas in the drinks being otherwise expelled. As a result he spends a great deal of time flying happily about, propelled by the force of his own flatulence. Clearly Dahl did not think intestinal gas an unfit subject for children’s ears.

I end this with the revelation that the Greek “peter” (Spiderman pronunciation appropriate here) means “stone”, which is presumably the material from which the sixteenth century walls blown up by petards were made. Language is strange.