Monday, February 11, 2008

Silent But Deadly

Warning: this entry contains a word that the staid Oxford English Dictionary labels as “not in decent use.”

I know that some people consider etymology the second most dismal science, but every once in a while, a revelation bursts forth. This happened to me yesterday as I looked up a word. The word was the seemingly innocent partridge.

Partridges are members of the pheasant family. They eat insects, berries, and seeds, and they nest on the ground. Weighing less than a pound, they can run very quickly, which saves them from many a predator.

Then came the shocker: the name derived from a Greek verb, perdesthai, which, from antiquity, has meant “to fart.” It’s not so much that this particular bird is prone to flatulence. Rather, it refers to the noise made by the bird as it flies away. That has to be some takeoff.

Intrigued, I decided to do a wild card search on etymologies containing break wind, fart, and flatulence. That’s when a second surprise erupted.

The German district of Westphalia was known for its pumpernickel, a coarse black bread not always fully appreciated. In fact, in early modern German, pumper meant fart. As the Oxford English Dictionary delicately puts it, “this type of bread was probably so called either on account of its being difficult to digest and causing flatulence, or in a more general allusion to its hardness and poor quality.”

Hidden farts also lurk in lycoperdon (wolf’s fart), a fungus puffball, Onopordon (donkey fart), a genus of thistles, pedicule (small fart), a louse, and poop, from a German verb meaning to fart.

Now I can’t wait to have a partridge sandwich on pumpernickel. Pass the Beano®, please.

SIDEBAR: Partridge recipe

SIDEBAR: Brontofart: dinosaurs and methane

SIDEBAR: The Partridge Family

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