Farts, burps and queefs: A semiotic analysis
I hate to admit it, but it’s possible that I have taken my fascination with bodily emissions a little too far in this piece. I suspect that ‘juvenile but surprisingly dry’ is a fair assessment. You have been warned. Happy New Near!
Over the years, every time I have given a lecture or talk on the anthropology of farting, somebody inevitably raises the topic of burps and asks why they don’t engender the same intense reaction. After all, most of us have been exposed, at one time or another, to belches powerful enough to singe nasal hairs, but we generally think of burps as less disgusting and embarrassing than farts.
My usual response is to explain differing reactions to the two emissions in terms of their point of origin: an expulsion from the anus is more symbolically loaded than one stemming from the mouth because of the different respective function of these orifices. While we kiss mouths, we don’t typically kiss anuses, except in a metaphoric sense.1 Recently, however, it has occurred to me that I have been rather too blithe in explaining the different reactions to farts and burps, and that a deeper analysis is warranted.
What has got me thinking about this topic is another type of ‘botty burp’ I have recently had cause to think about: vaginal flatulence. Now, I realise that for most people (well, Brits, at least), ‘botty’ is childish slang for a bottom rather than a vagina, but when I was a kid it was our go-to term for the latter.2 In any case, at least for me, the term brings together burps, farts and vaginal flatulence.
Vaginal flatulence – otherwise known as ‘queefing’ or ‘varting’ – is exactly what it sounds like: the expulsion of air trapped in the vagina. As Nora from Queens illustrates, this can happen after being kicked in the fanny,3 but more common causes (well, one hopes) are sex and cervical exams. Pregnancy and menopause can also precipitate it, along with exercise. If you’ve ever heard someone letting rip during Downward Dog in your weekly yoga class, it’s possible that what you experienced was a vart rather than a fart. However, a key attribute of queefs is that they do not smell. They might sound like farts, but that is the only quality they share.
But is ‘fart’ or ‘flatulence’ the right word for the expulsion of odourless air from a bodily orifice? To me, this raises much larger philosophical questions about the meaning of farts. If we can spend centuries debating whether a tree makes a sound if it falls in the forest and there’s no one around to hear,4 then surely we can spend ten minutes on a far more interesting philosophical conundrum, namely: if a fart does not smell, is it still a fart?
For the record, I have actually been contemplating this question since 2015, when a reporter interviewed me for an article about a French inventor by the name of Christian Poincheval. You see, Poincheval insisted that he had developed a pill that made farts smell sweet. Although doubtful that the pills actually worked, I was deeply intrigued by the philosophical implications of farts that smelled like chocolate or flowers. What would a fart mean if it didn’t smell bad?
Having given the matter serious thought, I believe an answer can be found in the work of the American philosopher and logician Charles Sanders Peirce.5 Where Peirce’s ideas have been most influential is in relation to the field of semiotics: the study of signs and symbols. As a result of the influence of linguistics on semiotic theories, until Peirce, semioticians were primarily interested in symbols: signs where the relationship between the object and its meaning is arbitrary and established by convention.
Language is a classic symbol. After all, there is no natural relationship between the sounds we make to communicate and the objects they represent, which is why we call it a ‘fart’ in English, péter in French and bang-gwi in Korean. The primary exception, of course, is onomatopoeic words like ‘bang’ and ‘woof’. Although classic semioticians weren’t particularly interested in onomatopoeia, the phenomenon speaks to a significant aspect of Peirce’s theory of signs, because he was interested not merely in artificial signs like symbols, but natural signs as well.
Peirce posited two separate types of signs in addition to symbols: icons and indexes. Icons are signs in which the relationship between an object and its meaning is based on resemblance or similarity. Onomatopoeic words are icons; so are maps, blueprints and paintings (at least, of the realist rather than abstract variety). Many road signs are also icons, designed to rely minimally on cultural knowledge for interpretation.6 Indexes or indices, in contrast, are signs in which the relationship between the object its meaning is based on physical connection rather than resemblance. Smoke, for example, is an index of fire; a footprint indexes a foot, a weathervane indexes wind, tears index sadness.
But Peirce was clear that these three sign categories are ideal types. Rarely do signs exist in pure form; most are a combination of the three types (in fact, he suggested there were at least ten classes of sign, although I won’t bore you with the details, which I don’t fully comprehend myself). Take ‘woof’ for example. While it sounds broadly like the object it represents, the sound of a dog barking is conventionalised completely differently in Korean (meongmeong is used instead). This suggests that there is a symbolic dimension to onomatopoeic words. Likewise, while a footprint indexes a foot, it also looks like a foot itself, so it has iconic as well as indexical properties.
Following Peirce’s sign categories, the classic ‘loud and proud’ fart is clearly an indexical sign because there is a cause-effect relationship between the sound of a fart and the smell that immediately follows it.7 The primary type of flatulence that destroys this relationship is the ‘silent but deadly’ fart – basically the olfactory equivalent of a rattlesnake that strikes without a warning rattle first.
But the fact that we still classify ‘silent but deadlies’ as farts is highly telling, suggesting that smell trumps sound when it comes to flatulence. As Benjamin Franklin observed well over two centuries ago, ‘Were it not for the odiously offensive smell accompanying such escapes, polite people would probably be under no more restraint in discharging such wind in company than they are in spitting or blowing their noses’.
But the nature of the smell itself is also highly significant, because farts are a very particular type of ‘odiously offensive smell’, bearing a striking similarity to that of their more robust cousin: faeces. Indeed, given that bouts of flatulence typically accompany the act of defecation itself, they are often a double act.8
So closely related are the smells of shitting and farting that their relationship is arguably iconic. In effect, the sound of a fart indexes the accompanying smell, which is iconic of the smell of defecation itself, being virtually indistinguishable from it. Once you add in the symbolic associations of the anus – the most stigmatised of all body parts – then it’s hardly a surprise that farts engender such a strong reaction. Basically, a fart is the semiotic motherlode: an index, icon and symbol rolled into one.
Burps, on the other hand, are not semiotically loaded in the same way – as illustrated by Lil Sis Nora’s ‘Party Trick: The Burp Song’. Try and imagine a version of Party Trick subtitled ‘The Fart Song’, and the connotations change completely. Beyond the fact that the whole thing would look like the prelude to an intense bout of diarrhoea, I strongly doubt that everyone in the clip would be happily bopping along to the sound of anal queefing. The song only works because a burp is not an index or an icon in the same way a fart is.
While they technically index the release of gas from the digestive tract, and occasionally produce a pungent odour, we associate belches with a sound rather than a smell – so much so that the defining feature of the burp is the sound itself. Put differently, the sound of a burp isn’t seen as a prelude to something; it is the thing. And equally importantly, it is not iconically connected with any reviled substances, so its meanings are primarily symbolic, which means that we think of burps as rude (and unladylike), but not much more than that.
So how, then, do we explain queefs? As terms like ‘vart’ and ‘vaginal flatulence’ suggest, queefs9 are far more strongly connected with farts than burps are – a connection explored at length in the South Park episode ‘Eat, Pray, Queef’.10 On the face of it, this seems odd, given that queefs are caused by trapped air rather than gas and categorically do not smell. But a key part of the answer is the iconic relationship between the sound of a fart and the sound of a vart.
While a burp and a fart are unlikely to be mistaken, a vart and a fart are much harder to distinguish. However, the realisation that the sound comes from the front rather than the back end doesn’t seem to negate the negative connotations of the vart. To my knowledge, ‘Don’t be alarmed, it’s only a queef!’ are words that have never been uttered in public, although they would surely be cause for relief for anyone sweating their way through a hot yoga class. If anything, the embarrassment caused by a misplaced vart is potentially even greater than that of a misplaced fart.
As the South Park episode highlights, this is because of the fact that while queefs and farts might be iconically related, their symbolic meanings differ. If the anus is the most stigmatised orifice, the vagina is the one we have the most ambivalent relationship with, being simultaneously the source of life (after all, ‘babies come from there’) and the site of intense cultural anxieties about dangerous and devouring women – as cross-cultural myths about the vagina dentata (a.k.a. the ‘vagina with teeth’) attest. The widespread existence of taboos around menstrual blood, along with the preoccupation with vaginal odour evident in the American fondness for douching, suggest that emanations from the vagina are particularly charged.
In the end, I’m forced to conclude that the relationship between farts, burps and queefs is far more complicated than I realised. While they are all culturally charged symbols associated with a lack of bodily control, farts are clearly the signiest of signs. But their maligned status is far from arbitrary, given their sound-stench qualities and excremental associations. Queefs, on the other hand, definitely get short shrift. Despite being the most olfactorily innocent of the three emissions, they are victims of their aural similarity to farts and their vaginal origins. So instead of ‘freeing the fart’, what we should really be talking about is freeing the vart, because no woman should live in fear of the noises her vagina makes during yoga, but unrepentant farters11 deserve all the judgement they get.
Except, of course, for those people who are into – no judgement! – rimming.
It’s entirely possible that this was localised family slang, much in the way that we called farts ‘rudies’ when I was little. Sadly, I am no longer close enough to any childhood friends from Townsville to send them a random note saying, ‘Hey, did you use “botty” as a slang word for “vagina” when you were a kid?’
A.k.a. a vagina. How British slang for ‘vulva’ became American slang for ‘buttocks’ remains a mystery that even the Etymology Dictionary does not attempt to solve.
As those of us who are not professional philosophers have long intuited, this is not some deep philosophical chestnut but a pointless trick question that relies on the technical distinction between sound and sound waves (the former requiring an ear to hear it and the latter happening regardless), so that the poser/poseur can pontificate on the difference between the two.
What you are getting here is Peirce for dummies, primarily because Peirce makes French post-structuralists like Foucault, Deleuze and Derrida seem accessible and engaging. To quote the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, in what amounts to the understatement of the year, ‘Peirce is often obscure and even at his best is seldom easy to read’. Peirce is so impenetrable that no one seems to have noticed that I got his views on statistics completely wrong in an academic paper.
While I name no names, I know that at least some of you are thinking that not all farts smell. That’s technically true, but believe me when I tell you that your farts smell more than you think, despite your assurances to the contrary.
If you’re wondering where the term ‘queef’ itself comes from, it does not, as I originally assumed, derive from the term ‘quim’ – an archaic slang term for vagina. According to Wiktionary, it’s a variant of the Scottish and northern English term ‘quiff’: ‘a puff of wind’.
My favourite scene involves Martha Stewart giving tips on queefing, but I’ve decided not to embed it on the premise that I’ve got to draw the line on taste somewhere in this post. Apparently, that line turns out to be a cartoon Martha Stewart shooting stars and glitter out of her pixelated vagina.
You know who you are.