A writer must follow the truth wherever it might lead, even at the risk of losing all self-respect. It was never my intention to write about this subject, but it is one that cannot be ignored. I speak here of a simple unit of speech that can never be spoken in polite company. Yet it is a playful word that causes me to smile whenever I say it. Ripping off the tongue in the same delightful way it emanates, it is so much more fun to pronounce than other words of harsher sound and meaning that still intrude upon even the politest of conversations.
While it never made it into George Carlin’s famous “Seven Dirty Words” list, the word is still considered vulgar by Webster’s. It refers to the expulsion through the anus of intestinal gas or flatus. (Flatus, on the other hand, is perfectly acceptable to say in most social gatherings, though you don’t hear it a lot).
I find it curious that a word, whose alternate definition—“to break wind”—sounds almost poetic, could ever be labeled vulgar.
Of course, that which is deemed unspeakable readily becomes the butt of our jokes. As Carlin noted, “Anything we all do—and never talk about—is funny.” Such jokes pale in comparison, however, to the actual physical process. Nothing can so up end a discussion and set people to tittering as the unexpected, noisome release of a little flatus. A former teacher colleague used to deal with this problem whenever it erupted among his seventh grade students (who, as a group, are particularly susceptible to fits of tittering and releases of flatus) by stating in a casual voice: “What’s the big deal? It’s only air!” But as we all know, this is simply not the case.
The air we breathe today is composed primarily of nitrogen and oxygen, with lesser amounts of argon, carbon dioxide and water vapor. Billions of years ago, however, the earth’s atmosphere more closely resembled that mixture of gases—hydrogen, methane, and carbon dioxide—produced in our bowels as a result of bacterial decomposition. Presumably, if there had been anyone around back then to pass judgment on such matters, the expulsion of this flatus would not have been considered unspeakable. No more so than the release of marsh gas that bubbles up without so much as a titter from the rotting vegetation of countless pond and lake bottoms.
But human bottoms are not supposed to bubble like the rest of nature, at least not in public. We humans have never been comfortable with this rotting business. We prefer not to acknowledge any connection between the foods we put in our mouths and those horrid, gas-producing beasties that lurk within our guts. Far better to ignore the incessant whispering of a darker and cruder nature hidden from our view.
I have always suspected that this is what inspired horror story writer H.P. Lovecraft to create one of his most loathsome supernatural monsters: Hastur the Unspeakable. An elemental creature of the air, it was always breaking out unexpectedly upon this sane and proper world of ours with most regrettable consequences.
Cosmic monsters aside, however, in every mortal being a little flatus must form. When the level becomes excessive, the condition is referred to as flatulence. Some of us, because of heredity or diet, can produce quantities of gas bordering on the supernatural. The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy mentions one study that “noted a patient with daily flatus frequency as high as 141, including 70 passages in one 4 hour period.” Hastur, I presume?
Like death and taxes, flatulence is impossible to avoid. Some might try to avoid eating foods high in indigestible cellulose, such as cabbage, beans, whole-grain products, and many fruits and vegetables, which result in large amounts of hydrogen being generated in the intestines. Yet many doctors are now recommending such high fiber foods in order to help prevent colon and rectal cancer, diverticulosis, and even constipation. We might finally have to admit that, in essence, our species is still tied to crude chemical and biological processes, and that which we now call unspeakable by any another name would smell as sweet.
©Gene Twaronite 2014
Originally published in 5enses May 2014 http://www.5ensesmag.com/not-so-ghastly-emanations/