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The choice of the verb "break" seems a strange choice for the phrase. Does anybody know where this phrase originated?

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When I was a kid in the 1960s, I asked an adult what "breaking wind" meant, and I was told to shut up. Okay, a year or so later, an aunt was wearing a light jacket she called a windbreaker. I wanted to keep my cousins warm, so I positioned myself between them and the oncoming wind. When asked what I was doing, I said I am "breaking wind". Several adults heard me and started laughing out loud, and at long last, someone finally clued me in on the real meaning of breaking wind. (Passing gas.) I was horrified! –  John Apr 20 at 2:48

5 Answers 5

It appears that this may have some relation to an obsolete meaning of brake.

From OED:

† brake, v.6

Etymology: perhaps repr. an unrecorded Old English *bracian , < bræc , which occurs in the sense of ‘phlegm, mucus, saliva’; compare Old Dutch braeken , Middle Low German and modern Dutch braken to vomit; allied to break n.1 (compare German sich brechen).

a. trans. and intr. To spue, vomit.

b. Cf. to break wind: see break v. Phrases 6.

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I never knew brake/break used to have that sense in English too. Interesting! I have heard people (humorously and quite uncharmingly) refer to burps as ‘mouth-farts’, which is kind of the reverse of what would then be going on here. (Though I suppose really breaking wind ought to mean having diarrhoea, then, rather than just having flatulence.) –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Apr 20 at 11:19

From M-W:

to separate into parts with suddenness or violence

That sounds very descriptive of what is going on, at least for the noisy variety

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I am involved in a Shakespeare production of Henry iv part one in which Falstaff complains that if he exerts himself any more he will break his wind ---- It seems an obvious fart joke (though of course the possibility remains that he is out of breath). I can't find any site allowing that this is the first use of the fart idiom though.

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The joke wouldn't be comprehensible if it was the first use of the idiom. –  Peter Shor Apr 20 at 4:06

Usage

break wind was certainly widely used in the 17th century, but I'm still working on finding an earlier source. In other works of the 17th century, break wind appears to refer to either belching or farting, and often break wind upward is used to signify the former.

However, in A Briefe Discourse of a Disease Called the Suffocation of the Mother (aka hysteria) by Edward Jorden, printed in 1603, is a passage dealing with the fact that you cannot control certain bodily functions, such as your pulse. A glorious and fascinating passage deals with people who are attested to be able to control certain bodily functions though.

Galen ... bringeth an instance of a servant who killed himselfe to anger his master by holding of his breath. S.Augustine tells of one that could make himselfe to sweate when he list, by his imagnation only. Cornelius Gemma saith, that he knewe one that could weepe when he list: others that could make their bodies stiffe like an image, imitate the voyces of all kinde of creatures, raise a hickocke, and breake wind as often and in what maner they would. And S.Augustine tels of one that would make a kinde of musicke that way. Adrian Turnebus saw a rogue that gayned much money be shewing this feate, we do also see that some can counterfait madnes, some drunkennesse, some the falling sicknesse, some palsies and trembling, some can play the fooles and supply the roomes of innocents, some can make noyses and speake in their bellies or throates, as those which Hyppocrates calleth Eugastrimuthoi ventro loqui, such as was the holy maid of Kent, and Mildred of Westwall, &c.

Etymology

In A Dictionary of the Anglo-Saxon Language by Joseph Bosworth (page 64) is a definition of the Anglo-Saxon verb Brecan, for which the given meanings are:

To BREAK, vanquish, overcome, weaken, open, move, excite, produce (italics are my own).

So, I think it's reasonable to say that breaking wind probably came from producing (or moving) wind.

I wish I could stop reading the Jorden book though, as I now want to know so much more about the holy maid of Kent, and Mildred of Westwall, and I love the witness of Adrain Turnebus (a French classical scholar, 1512-1565) that proves that "Le Pétomane" (Joseph Pujol) was nothing new.

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I don't know for sure, but it's a very old phrase. From etymonline.com:

Break wind first attested 1550s.

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