Mooooo-ve over global warming! The greenhouse-gas output of cows may have finally met its match.
Irish researchers recently announced that giving cows fish oil might limit the animals’ release of methane, an emission 25 times more damaging than carbon dioxide, which is exciting news. But equally interesting was the variety of ways news outlets worded their coverage of this story.
Why? Because cows release methane by passing gas, by tooting, by, as dairy cattle might say, cutting the cheese. And on this point the news media quickly divided into two camps: those who hid behind turgid, silly euphemisms (see above) and those who bore down, manned up and used the word “fart.”
Some of the euphemistic campers included CNN with “Flatulent cows could be curtailed by fish oil;” Fox News with “Fish Oil Could Curb Cow Flatulence;” the BBC with "Cows less windy on fish oil diet;" and, my favorite, inthenews.co.uk with “Fish oils offer hope against flatulent cows”—that last headline referring, of course, to the long, dispiriting battle the world has waged for centuries against the gassy bovine. (And here I thought all hope was lost.)
There are certain quarters where one expects bodily functions to produce this sort of linguistic awkwardness. The English are known for their stilted ways. And who could be surprised that Canadians, wary in their infinite politeness to even use a euphemism, gave this story the vague, relatively unhelpful title of “Fish oil in cow’s diet could help clear the air”? But Americans do not historically have these sorts of chips on their shoulders. We do not, as Joe Dirt might say, need to church it up.
The best headline from the opposing camp comes from USA Today, who most comprehensively and informatively entitled their piece “Fish oils reduce greenhouse gas emissions from farting cows.” They just get to it in the most straightforward way possible, which is and should be the American way for multiple reasons.
For starters, “fart” is the most egalitarian and direct term to use in this situation: It is one everyone knows and is clear about. “Flatulence,” though certainly a well-known term, is not so easily or immediately processed. Its use suggests a preciousness and unnecessary refinement that distances the readers from the reality of the story. If the average American, for example, were around a cow that farted, I doubt his or her first reaction would be to think, “My, that cow appears to be subject to some odoriferous flatulence.”
“Fart” is a more economical term to use. USA Today’s headline demonstrates a real-life application of a maxim used by Mark Twain, another Missourian who favors the brass-tacks approach: “I never write 'metropolis' for seven cents because I can get the same price for 'city.'” If we don't use this verb, we're left with flatulent terms (such as, you know, "flatulence") or excessively metaphorical phrases (such as "breaking wind"). "Fart" is the simplest term we've got, and we shouldn't be afraid to use it.
Now, I know some people will assert that these boons are outweighed by the fact that “fart” is seen by some as offensive. I admit that there are other situations where the most straightforward term, sexual references for example, would be too jarring or coarse to use in the media. But in reference to cows in a scientific context, the word “fart” is no more offensive than “burp” or “throw up” or other descriptions of bodily functions that sound natural when used by anyone grittier than Professor Henry Higgins.
Yes, “fart” has slangy connotations, but, as linguist Jonathan Lighter explains in his introduction to the “Historical Dictionary of American Slang,” “slanginess is not an immutable, inherent quality … a slang term has the potential to rise to complete respectability.” Admittedly some slang is not respectable. The word “fart” may not be completely respectable, but it has paid enough due in the lexicon queue to be viewed as socially acceptable.
For those who doubt its historical integrity, I submit the etymology of the word. “Fart,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is a verb meaning "to send forth as wind from the anus." It comes from the Old English “feorting,” corresponding to the Old High German “ferzan” and Old Norse “freta.” Farting is older, you see, than Chaucer and Icelandic sagas; who are we mortals to shun it?
There are many issues raised by this livestock news that will be difficult to deal with. Fish oil is relatively expensive in its present form, likely too expensive to be administered regularly to every cow on the planet. But the needless fear of “fart” exhibited by the coverage is simple enough to address; the more we use that efficient term, the more acceptable it will become and the easier our linguistic lives will be.
Katy Steinmetz is a columnist and reporter for the Missourian. She moved to Columbia after spending two years teaching in Winchester, England, and one year in Edinburgh, Scotland. She has freelanced for a variety of publications, including 417 Magazine in Springfield, Mo., and the Guardian in London. Katy plans to complete her MU master's degree in 2010.