I have just emailed the following to the London Review of Books, in response to their recent piece entitled Gutted:
Steven Shapin writes that Darwin’s uncontrollable retching and farting seriously limited his public life (LRB, 30 June).
Some years ago, to my delight, I worked out that the great man’s full name, Charles Robert Darwin, is an anagram of ‘rectal winds abhorrer’.
Unfortunately for my anagram, the meanings of words, like species, can evolve. On the rare occasions that Darwin mentioned his gaseous problems to friends, he always used the word ‘flatulence’. Nowadays, we think of flatulence as being synonymous with farting, but, in Darwin’s day, it simply meant (as it technically still does) an accumulation of gases in the alimentary canal.
While I’m sure that Darwin, like the rest of us, must have vented his excess gas one way or the other, there is no reason to believe that his farts were uncontrollable.
The Friends of Charles Darwin
(As a postscript, I should perhaps add that, although Darwin’s nickname at school was Gas, this had nothing to do with his alimentary system, and everything to do with his passion for manufacturing gases in his amateur chemical laboratory at home.)
(As a second postscript, I should add that the LRB published the above letter in their 28-Jul-2011 edition.)
Damn! It would appear that one of my all-time favourite nuggets of Darwinian trivia in nothing but hot air.
For years, I have been telling people about the terrible flatulence Darwin suffered throughout his life following the Beagle voyage. I would explain how embarrassed he was of his uncontrollable farts, and I would then invariably point out that the name Charles Robert Darwin is, rather aptly it seemed, an anagram of rectal winds abhorrer. Hell, I’ve even made this witty observation in comments on one or two far more popular Darwin-related weblogs.
Languages, like species, evolve. The spelling of words can change—and so can their meanings.
Yesterday, I was catching up on a small backlog of New Scientist magazines, when I came across a short piece about the online publication of Emma Darwin’s diaries (mentioned briefly on this weblog last month). According to New Scientist (my emphasis added):
… [Emma Darwin's diary] entries reveal that the young Charles was already suffering soon after his return from the Beagle voyage and their marriage. Over the course of several months in 1840, for example, Emma described Darwin as “exhausted”, “overtired + trembling”, “languid” and suffering “great flatulence” (which then meant burping), symptoms that plagued him until his death more than 40 years later.
Damn! Darwin wasn’t a farter; he was a belcher. And my clever anagram is ruined.
Is nothing sacred? Is there no end to the myths that surround Charles Darwin?
The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind.