False friends: Rude misreading
M. Michael Brady
On a footbridge over a waterway in the port of Kragerø, there’s a sign reading “Sakte Fart.” Its meaning is clear in Norwegian, a command to boats on the waterway to cut speed to a minium. But when misread by English-speaking tourists, it becomes an amusing linguistic mix, as the word “fart” is an indecent word for breaking wind.
That disparity of meanings between Norwegian and English apparently arose centuries ago. Initially, both Old Norwegian and old English shared two old Germanic words for expelling a flatus, fertan and fisa, respectively meaning to do so loudly or quietly. Thereafter, the two words evolved in differing ways in the two languages.
In English, fertan evolved to “fart,” first used by Chaucer in 1386 in “The Miller’s Tale.” About a hundred years thereafter, it acquired an additional meaning of “something worthless,” and in 1937 it was first used to designate a contemptable person. The word fisa evolved to “fist,” which was in everyday use in Medieval times, but thereafter faded into obscurity, being last used in print in the 17th century.
In Norwegian, fertan evolved into words concerned with speed and motion and with time became the root word for the verb farte (to wander about) and the noun fart (motion, speed) as well as for associated words, such as fare (travel) and ferd (movement, voyage). It also became the root of the modern words for loudly expelling a flatus, the verb fjerte and the noun fjert, which in everyday usage were displaced by the verb prompe and the noun promp. The word fisa for quietly expelling a flatus evolved to the modern Norwegian verb fise and the noun fis.
So both English and Norwegian started with two words for breaking wind and with time lost one of the two. We can only guess why the lost word differed between English and Norwegian. In any case, if English and Norwegian had retained both words through the years, today’s sign on the footbridge in Kragerø most likely would be of lesser interest for English-speaking tourists.
Originally published in Norwegian on the Clue Dictionaries blog on language at blogg.clue.no.
This article also appeared in the Aug. 12, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.