William Shakespeare once wrote, “A fart by any other name would smell as stanky.” And it does: See toot, or passed gas, or broken wind, or cut cheese. Each euphemism refers to the same thing, and that thing is the expulsion of intestinal gas through the anus, often bearing an unpleasant aroma.
Traveling north, however, we encounter a fart of opposite character. This fart carries only one name, but its nine short letters stand for a whole variety of complex, even contradictory functions. Rectal flatulence is simple, straightforward; cerebral flatulence poses a nearly unsolvable maze of meanings.
I am speaking, of course, of the brain fart.
In my own vernacular, the term brain fart refers to a minute memory lapse, an acceptable excuse for forgetting the name of a country, or a chemical, or an extremely well known celebrity:
“You look just like—oh! Ugh, that guy, what’s his name. George something, the actor. From that movie, about the ocean? God, this is gonna kill me.”
“Right, him! Shrugs. Brain fart.”
Like a rectal fart, a brain fart is a natural, inescapable, and unforeseeable body function that can be humiliating to undergo in public. By farting, something you would prefer to not emit from your body is emitted against your conscious will. Your flesh defies your mind’s better intentions.
But the parallel isn’t perfect; indeed the farts are in some ways quite opposite. With a rectal fart, you expel excess gas, a substance harmful to your body if kept inside for too long. Though it may be hard to admit, your body has done you a favor. With a brain fart, however, you unintentionally discharge information that you had wanted to keep; you suddenly and inexplicably lose a part of yourself that you had valued. In the latter case, the betrayal of the flesh is complete, and the fart, more sinister.
Seeking more information on the body’s darkest abilities, I turned, of course, to the Internet. Urban Dictionary, the web’s premiere slang compendium, includes a number of definitions for brain fart, and their most popular entries are roughly equivalent with my usage above. Their number one definition (currently rated at 331 thumbs up to 40 down) submitted by user David Peterle reads as follows:
“When you are attempting to remember something very obvious, something that you know you should know. This feeling often leads to head banging and hair pulling.”
Aarrgh, I should have known it was George Clooney! I don’t deserve these golden locks! Nor, unfortunately, does young Bobby, the subject of Mr. Peterle’s adorable sample sentence:
“[B]obby raised his hand to answer the teacher’s question only to find that he had had a brain fart, and he was unable to answer 2+2.”
Poor Bobby, cut down in the prime of his youth by a brain fart. But devastating as it is to forget the number four (and come on, who hasn’t been there), Bobby should thank his lucky stars he ended up on U.D. and not Wikipedia. The kinetic user-edited encyclopedia begins its article on brain farts as follows (or at least it does least today):
“A brain fart is slang for a special kind of abnormal brain activity which results in human error while performing a repetitive task, or more generally denoting a degree of mental laxity or any task-related forgetfulness, such as forgetting how to hold a fork.”
Forgetting how to hold a fork? That’s scary shit. The stakes of the brain fart have just been raised. Picture me and my cinephilic friend: I pause mid-sentence unable to utter George Clooney’s name, not because I can’t remember it—indeed, it flashes in neon in my mind—but because I’ve forgotten how to shape my mouth to pronounce that impossible |jôrj|. Picture little Bobby, just asked the sum of 2+2: He is quiet as a stone. The teacher calls his name again, and the whole class turns toward him; they too become frozen in place, horrified, as they witness their friend caught in the cold grasp of his inevitable capsize, slowly but surely tipping over the side of his seat, pushed by nothing but the force of his own weight. Deep behind his dead, blank eyes, Bobby’s mind desperately tries to recall how to sit in a chair. Shudder.
The Wiki-model brain fart recalls a different quality of the rectal fart, which is the sheer unpredictability of its magnitude. Like the U.D. usage, it too draws up contemplations of the body’s disobedience to the mind, but it extends its axis of severity. Rectal farts too occupy the full range of a scale: Sometimes, one knows when a fart is coming, and he can either hold it in and let it out in a more appropriate setting, or he can restrict its volume with precise bowel control. Sometimes, one knows when a fart is coming, and he tries to restrict its volume but finds his bowel control not as precise as he remembered, and the flatulence is humiliatingly audible. Sometimes, however, one does not know a fart is coming at all, and when it does, it is even louder than the fart-gone-wrong of our previous hypothetical, and our poor, nameless protagonist’s entire life is ruined, the one chance with the girl of his dreams literally blown away.
If you think this sounds bad, Wikipedia offers a second, even darker definition:
“The term is typically employed in the United States to indicate a regrettable and poorly thought out choice of action. According to Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Denis Gauthier a brainfart occurs when one “momentarily loses his sense of logic…and does something ‘dumb’.”
6’3” Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Denis Gauthier’s moment of dumbness was slamming 5’10” Kyle Wellwood through the boards of the Wachovia Center. While the Toronto Sun interviewer who provided the quote is skeptical of Gauthier’s innocence, Wiki provides a chilling clarification:
“Investigative journalist Louie Pierson…proffers that while accidents are preventable, “brain farts are unpredictable, unpreventable and universal.’”
Jesus Christ. The brain fart seems to have evolved from an innocuous, momentary slip of the mind to the malicious hijacking of the entire body. This model of brain fart has me unwillingly telling my Clooney-esque friend he looks like Paul Giamatti; and back in math class, Bobby doesn’t answer 2+2, but instead, as if pulled by the strings of an invisible puppeteer, knocks over his desk and pees all over his teacher. There is no rectal equivalent.
Actually, maybe sharting. Sharting is pretty bad.
But the brain fart starts looking up at our last frontier. Leaving behind those disreputable sites, we turn to Dictionary.com, “An Ask.com service,” which draws its definitions from more esteemed external sources like the Random House Dictionary and The Collin’s English Dictionary. For brain fart, however, they cite a more unconventional reference—something called the Free On-line Dictionary of Computing (available at http://foldoc.org/). FOLDOC’s first definition of brain fart is almost impenetrably technical, but seems to indicate something along the lines of the Urban Dictionary model:
“1. The actual result of a braino, as opposed to the mental glitch that is the braino itself. E.g. typing “dir” on a Unix box after a session with MS-DOS.”
FOLDOC defines braino as “[a] thinko,” which it in turn defines as “a momentary, correctable glitch in mental processing…a bubble in the stream of consciousness.” Braino and thinko are in analogy to typo, or typographical error; a braino, then, is a contemplative error, a jam in the mental cogs; and a brain fart is its physical manifestation, i.e. punching out the wrong command. This definition is more or less the same as Wiki’s second example, if semantically refined.
Much more interesting is FOLDOC’s second definition:
“2. A biproduct of a bloated mind producing information effortlessly. A burst of useful information. ‘I know you’re busy on the Microsoft story, but can you give us a brain fart on the Mitnik bust?’”
Here a brain fart is a welcome, miraculous epiphany; it is a thing to be desired. Imagine young Bobby experiencing a brain fart of this manner in his mathematics classroom: Now he is unable to answer 2+2 because he has spontaneously disproved the set theory that defends the validity of addition itself. Imagine me with my handsome friend: I can’t invoke George Clooney’s name because I’ve developed deep and challenging notions regarding the ephemeral natures of fame and celebrity.
If we are to accept this definition of brain fart, we must rethink our consideration of the mother fart too. Would you ever ask a co-worker to give you a fart? Can a fart be pleasant, even desired? Does brain fart’s etymological integrity stand? I think, upon reflection, that it does.
Farts are a cornerstone of American humor. See South Park’s Terrence and Philip, the pair of wisecracking, cheek-cracking Canadians who entertain our favorite Coloradoan boys on TV, much to the chagrin of their fart-intolerant parents. “Ugh, South Park is such juvenile humor,” you object, and maybe you’re right. But that doesn’t mean it’s not funny—when Stan and Kyle laugh, we viewers laugh too, because it feels right to enjoy and celebrate farts, and any crusty old Sheila Broflovski who says otherwise is just a square.
And it’s not just South Park, or America for that matter—let’s return to our pal Willy, one of the most respected writers of the English language who ever was. Consider this real, totally not made up exchange from Othello (Act III, Scene I if you don’t believe me):
CLOWN: Are these, I pray you, wind instruments?
FIRST MUSICIAN: Ay marry are they, sir.
CLOWN: O, thereby hangs a tail.
FIRST MUSICIAN: Whereby hangs a tail, sir?
CLOWN: Marry, sir, by many a wind instrument I know.
Get it? He’s talking about a butt! Still think fart jokes are juvenile, Sheila Broflovski? Because Shakespeare thinks they’re pretty legit.
There are, then, many ways to take a fart, be it from the bowels or the brain. A minor annoyance, a calamitous misfortune, a joyful surprise—it all depends on your attitude.
Until next time, plbhphphbhlh.