Daily Archives: June 19, 2010


A rumbling burbles from a bloated belly nearby. Not to be a boring prig, but what barbarian is plaguing us with their borborygmus?

Well, it’s not really such a social infraction as all that, especially given that it’s often followed by the question, “Was that me?” Hard to get upset at something when it might be you.

And it’s anything but new. The ancient Greeks did it (in spite of their often being presented, as Peter Shaffer’s Mozart put it in Amadeus, as “so lofty they shit marble”). We know they did, because borborygmus is their word (as filtered to us through the Romans, whom we know to have had earthier appetites – panem et circenses, decline and fall, and all that).

Now, to us, borborygmus might sound like a frog. To the Greeks, though, at least to Aristophanes (a very earthy Greek indeed), frogs sounded like brekekekex koax koax. Borborygmus may also sound like the rumbling of boulders (marble bounding through the immaculate colons of Titans, perhaps). But one thing it seemed to sound at least a little like to the Greeks was the speech of foreigners. I say this because the classical Greek word barbaros, from which we get barbarian and its kin, was imitative of their perception of the speech of foreigners – which was also compared with stuttering. And barbaros does have a certain resemblance to borborugmos, the Greek source of our word du jour. Clearly repetition was a common feature in Greek onomatopoeia.

In fact, repetition may have been more to the point than the blunt voiced stops, rounded vowels, and rumbling liquids; bowels rumbling with liquids could as readily sound sharp, as Aristophanes illustrated when comparing (in The Clouds) the rumbling of thunder with flatulence caused by an excess of soup: papax papax and then papappax and up to papapappax.

Now, of course, papax is really a hapax legomenon (a word only found once in recorded literature – another one such, if the OED‘s citations cover the ambit, is borborology, meaning “filthy talk”), but I’m sure most of us recognize the sound. Indeed, other cultures have used similar phonetics to represent the phenomenon. I am put in mind of the Nakoda (Stoney Indian, a branch of the Sioux) word borhborhingen, which, in a somewhat literal translation, means “fart machine”. It’s actually their word for automobile… presumably because of what comes out the tailpipe, though cars do run on gas.

Thanks to Jim Taylor for mentioning this word.