The French are a curious people – as is every people under the sun, in its own sweet way. This, of course, is to say nothing at all – but oh, how elegantly! – which itself is something the French greatly enjoy doing, and call la philosophie. The particularity of the Gallic mindset interests me in this context (that of human flatulence and its profound – er – philosophical significance) because the French language is, as far as I know, the only European tongue which possesses two distinct words for the healthy and life-enhancing action of breaking wind. There is le pet, which denotes your common-or-garden audible fart; this is a masculine noun, defined in Larousse as “Gaz intestinal qui sort de l’anus avec bruit”. But there is also la vesse, which (as should be obvious from its hissing onomatopoeic quality) refers specifically to a phenomenon for which we Brits have no specific word, but which is vulgarly called the Silent But Deadly, or SBD. For this, the Larousse definition is “Émission de gaz fétides, faite sans bruit par l’anus”. This noun, be it noted, is feminine. For although the French, like most of us, have adapted to the more respectful gender attitudes which have become the norm (not to say compulsory under pain of castration) in our sexually enlightened era, their culture, like those of most countries with Mediterranean connections and strong peasant origins, had until recently a stubborn macho streak; they have been dragged kicking and screaming into the modern era of sexual tolerance and respect, rather than embracing it with cries of enthusiasm. Not so long ago, French men growled, shaved rarely, smoked stinking Boyards and Gauloises, and expected their women to speak in squeaky, nauseating little-girl voices – as they still do on commercial French radio.
What on earth (you may ask) has this churlish display of Francophobia have to do with that important branch of thought, the philosophy of flatulence?
Not a great deal, in a direct sense; but in any case I must stress that I am about as far from being a Francophobe as it is possible to be. Of course, like most curmudgeons of my age (vulgarly referred to as old farts, for some reason), I detest and abhor most French people, as I do almost all the human race; but the French language, culture, and attitude to life are very high on my list. One Gallic quality I especially admire is the down-to-earth approach to bodily functions, which is poetically enshrined in their language: in what other language is a show-off referred to as a fart-in-the-air, or a puff pastry described as a nun’s fart?