Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally


Posted by Neal on November 17, 2010

One morning I stood at the sign-in sheet for late arrivals at Doug or Adam’s (not saying which) school office. “Time in,” the first column read. I entered 9:15. “Child’s name.” I entered that. “Reason for tardiness.” I looked at the entries for other late students: “dr’s appt”, “orthodontist”, one “overslept”. That last one came close to what I had in mind, but it still didn’t quite fit. I’d woken up my son in plenty of time to get ready for school. I wrote in the slot, “Dawdling”.

That’s not what I call it at home. There, the term is farting around, a term I learned from Dad years ago when he would tell people (I don’t seem to recall exactly who) to stop doing it.

The Oxford English Dictionary‘s earliest attestation is from 1900, although instead of farting around, it’s farting about, from the English Dialect Dictionary:

Go bon tha! thoo’s allus farten aboot, thoo’s warse ner a hen wi’ egg.

Fart around has been around since at least 1952, when it appears in from Leon Uris’s novel Battle Cry:

If the Army wants to fart around for six weeks, it’s their business.

I got this citation from the Wordwizard Clubhouse forum on word origins and meanings, in a post from just last month by Ken Greenwald, who attributes it to the Historical Dictionary of [American] Slang. Ken’s post was actually even more useful, because it also talked about our back-yard neighbors’ variant of fart around, the longer and alliterative fiddle-fart around, attested from the early 1970s. I assumed it was an idiom blend of fiddle around and fart around, and that’s what Greenwald’s sources say, too. (He cites HDAS and three other sources, but it’s unclear which one(s) offered this etymology.)

I said that at home I used the phrasal verb fart around, but actually that’s not entirely true. I use fart around when my wife isn’t present. She hates the word fart; it’s another of her word aversions like the one she has to the word pee. So out of necessity, I came up with circumflatulate as an alternative. I’m not claiming to have invented the word. A Google check confirmed that the word’s been around for a few years before I independently created it. One attestation on Google Groups is from 1994.

Having the verb circumflatulate at my disposal, I can certainly say, “Stop circumflatulating!”, but what would be even more useful would be a way to a noun form so that I can tell the boys before they get dressed in the morning, or go to brush their teeth at night not to circumflatulate. Don’t circumflatulate would work, but I wanted something that would fit in the template No __________! There’s always the gerund, of course: No circumflatulating!. But for variety, I’ve sometimes said, “No circumflatulation!” Circumflatulation? Why not circumflatulence, to fill out the analogy of flatulate : flatulence :: circumflatulate : _______? I find hardly any hits for circumflatulence. I guess it’s because flatulence is a personal characteristic, and so I would think of circumflatulence as a tendency to circumflatulate. Circumflatulation is the act of circumflatulating.

Having these Latin roots to work with not only has allowed me to tell Doug and Adam to quit farting around without offending my wife’s sensibilities; it’s allowed me to talk about farting around with greater precision. Not just because where Anglo-Saxon-derived English has just farting around, Latin-derived English has circumflatulating, circumflatulation, and circumflatulence — also because fart around doesn’t easily allow for an adjectival form: *He’s a really {farting-around, around-farting} dude. With the Latinate verb, I can easily generate an adjectival form, and tell you that Doug and Adam are rather circumflatulent at times. And with that, maybe I’ve succeeded in creating a word after all!

UPDATE, Nov. 17, 2010: The same goes for agentive nouns. The best you can do with fart around is the graceless farterarounder, but with circumflatulate, the easy and obvious choice is circumflatulator


6 Responses to “Circumflatulation”

  1. Jonathon said

    Brilliant. I may have to add this to my vocabulary.

  2. Nice one!

    A colleague at work asked me the other day if I’d done anything special over the weekend. I didn’t use “farting around” as I’m not sure of her sensibilities, so I just answered “Just messing about”. “Just circumflatulating” is so much better!

  3. Ran said

    Yeah, the English prepositions really get in the way. We have to drop them whenever we do something interesting with the verb. (Hence “relive” rather than *”relive through”, “reliable” rather than *”rely-on-able”, and so on.) So I suppose we can call someone a “really fartsome dude”, but the loss of that “around” really muddles the meaning.

  4. Rachel said

    Delightful! I just stumbled upon your website while circumflatulating on the web. I am a great circumflatulator, it turns out.

  5. In my idiolect (speaking as a 50-something Briton) “farting around” and “farting about” mean two slightly different things: “farting around” means to pootle absently and with little purpose or achievement on no particular task; “farting about” means to expend energy on a task uselessly or unproductively, instead of directing one’s energies productively on that task.

  6. rendezvousrama said

    I’m definitely a circumflatulator!

    Thanks for this post! I often say, “fartin around,” when asked by a friend what I’m doing,. I grew up in West Texas where my grandpa Punch used to say the phrase.

    In West Texas slang and pronunciation, you drop the “g” in the first word and barely pronounce the first “a” in the second.

    Y’all kids quit fartin ’round!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: