Tuesday, November 28, 2006


Visio and Pedo

Some censorware programs erroneously reject web pages because the programs misinterpret innocent series of letters as obscenities. There is a curious parallel to this phenomenon in Cicero, Ad Familiares 9.22.4 (tr. D.R. Shackleton Bailey):
So we utter obscenities when we use respectable words. Take 'divisio'. A respectable word, wouldn't you say? But it contains an obscenity, just like 'intercapedo'.

igitur in verbis honestis obscena ponimus. quid enim? non honestum verbum est divisio? at inest obscenum, cui respondet intercapedo.
Cf. Quintilian 8.3.46 (discussing κακέμφατον, tr. H. E. Butler):
A similar offence against modesty may be caused by the division of words, as, for example, by the use of the nominative of intercapedinis.

sed divisio quoque adfert eandem iniuriam pudori, ut si intercapedinis nominativo casu quis utatur.
Butler's translation of Quintilian seems incorrect, when considered in the light of the Ciceronian passage. More accurate might be "But divisio also causes the same offense against modesty, as if someone were to use the nominative case of intercapedo."

The only commentary available to me on Cicero's letters is by Tyrrell and Purser, who say:
divisio]: suggests visio = flatum ventris emitto, just as intercapedo in the nominative suggests pedo.
The Latin verb pedo means "break wind". But visio as a verb with the meaning flatum ventris emitto (send forth a blast of wind) doesn't seem to occur in the Latin Dictionary by Lewis & Short. I do find:
visĭum , ii, n. [Gr. βδέσμα],
I. a stench: βδέσμα, visio, Gloss.
Calvert Watkins' Indo-European Roots, published as an appendix to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, has the following entries of interest:
peis-.2 To blow. 1. Germanic *fis- in old Norse fisa, to fart, akin to the Scandinavian source of Middle English fise, fart: FIZGIG. 2. Germanic *fisti- in Old English *fistan, to fart (attested only in the gerund fisting): FEIST (FIZZLE). [Pok. 2. peis- 796.]

perd-. To fart. Germanic *fertan, *fartan in Old English *feortan, to fart: FART. 2. Greek perdix, partridge (which makes a sharp whirring sound when suddenly flushed): PARTRIDGE. See also variant root pezd-. [Pok. perd- 819.]

pezd-. To fart. Variant of perd-. 1. Latin pēdere, to fart: PETARD. 2. Possibly Latin pēdis, louse (? < "foul-smelling insect"): PEDICULAR. [Pok. pezd- 829.]
Pok. is a reference to Julius Pokorny's Indogermanisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch. I'm way out of my element here, but I wonder if the obscure Latin visio or visium could possibly be derived from the Indo-European root peis-. Pokorny s.v. peis- mentions some words starting with v-, such as Dutch veest meaning fart.

On a related note, proto-Indo-European apparently had separate words for breaking wind loudly versus silently. For details, see Loud vs Silent by LanguageHat and O rem ridiculam! by Sauvage Noble.

Anatoly Liberman, "Gone with the Wind: More Thoughts on Medieval Farting," Scandinavian Studies 68 (1996) 98-104, discusses on p. 100 the question of loudness versus softness:
A big fart was associated with great strength. Witches in folktales farted to raise a storm. Conversely, the inability to break wind with a loud noise marked one off as a weakling. The most offensive word is físa 'make a weak fart'; consequently, it was much better to be a fretr 'farter' and even a meinfretr 'poisonous farter, stinker' than a físs. German Pimpf 'little (inexperienced) boy' is someone who cannot produce a good manly Pumpf 'fart'.
Liberman's mention of Pumpf reminds me of the word pumpernickel. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language derives pumpernickel from
German Pumpernickel: early New High German Pumpern, a fart (imitative) + Nickel, "devil," general pejorative (see nickel); so named from being hard to digest.
For similarly named pastries cf. pets-de-nonne (nun's farts) and also H.L. Mencken, Happy Days: 1880-1892 (1936; rpt. New York: Knopf, 1968), pp. 135-136:
The humor of the young bourgeoisie males of Baltimore, in those days, was predominantly skatological, and there was no sign of the revolting sexual obsession that Freudians talk of. The favorite jocosities had to do with horse apples, O.E.A. wagons and small boys who lost control of their sphincters at parties or in Sunday school; when we began to spend our summers in the country my brother and I also learned the comic possibilities of cow flops. Even in the city a popular ginger-and-cocoanut cake, round in contour and selling for a cent, was called a cow flop, and little girls were supposed to avoid it, at least in the presence of boys.

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