Friday False Friends 7: belch

Quill feather

belch (verb) ‘noisily expel wind from the stomach’

This word, in its modern meaning, has been in English since Anglo-Saxon times, and it early developed a figurative usage, describing the way people can give vent to their feelings as a cannon or volcano ‘belches’ fire. The sense of ‘vomit’, literally or metaphorically, was common too, and we find this in Shakespeare when Emilia describes women as filling men’s stomachs: ‘when they are full, / They belch us’ (Othello, III.iv.102), or when Ariel describes the ‘three men of sin’ as being ‘belched up’ by the sea (The Tempest, III.iii.57). It must also be the character-note for Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night. The more general sense is also found in Shakespeare, where the stomach is not involved. Cloten, talking of Innogen’s rebuff, says ‘the bitterness of it I now belch from my heart’ (Cymbeline, III.v.135). Here it means simply ‘discharge, emit’. Similarly, with the adjective, belching. When Pericles (in Pericles, III.i.62) and Nestor (in Troilus and Cressida, V.v.23) talk about the ‘belching whale’ they mean ‘spouting’. We must dismiss any notion of a noisy burp.

David Crystal is a writer, editor, lecturer and broadcaster, and is the co-author of the new Oxford Illustrated Shakespeare Dictionary.

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