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Belly up to the usage bar

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April  February 19, 2007 08:13 PM

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As I was investigating the uses of stomach, the verb, for yesterday's Word column, I remembered being taught that I should distinguish between stomach, the digestive organ, and belly, the abdomen. At the time I thought the issue was scientific accuracy, but there was more to the story, it turns out: A belly reclamation project was under way through much of the 20th century, as usagists labored to restore the word to respectability.

Here's a sampling of the campaign literature, starting with H.L. Mencken in "The American Language" (1921):

The Englishman, on the whole, is more plain-spoken than the American, and such terms as bitch, mare and on foal do not commonly daunt him, largely, perhaps, because of his greater familiarity with country life. . . . But an Englishman hesitates to mention his stomach in the presence of ladies, though he discourses freely about his liver. To avoid the necessity he employs such euphemisms as Little Mary.

H.W. Fowler, Modern English Usage (1926):

Belly is a good word now almost done to death by genteelism. It lingers in proverbs & phrases, but even they are being amended into up-to-date delicacy, & the road to the heart lies less often through the b[elly] than through the stomach or the tummy.

Bergen and Cornelia Evans, A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage (1957):

Belly is a good, sensible, established, time-honored word for that part of the human body which extends from the breastbone to the pelvis and contains the abdominal viscera. . . .
Stomach describes a particular organ, a sac-like enlargement of the alimentary canal. . . .
Tummy is simply disgusting when used by anyone over the age of four.

Kenneth G. Wilson, The Columbia Guide to Standard American English (1993):

Victorian American manners made the word belly, like leg, cock, bull, and many others taboo in most mixed company. Abdomen, stomach, midriff, and the cute tummy and jocular breadbasket were used as euphemisms instead. Today belly is Standard (although conservatives may prefer abdomen) in a range of literal and figurative meanings, the most central of which are the literal “the front lower part of the human body,” “the stomach,” “the abdominal cavity,” and “the underside of an animal’s body.” As a name for the womb, belly is partly archaic, partly Conversational: Where do babies come from? From Mommy’s belly.

Bill Bryson, "Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States" (1994):

On an early [TV] talk show when the English comedian Beatrice Lillie jokingly remarked of belly dances that she "had no stomach for that kind of thing," it caused a small scandal.

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (1994):

The committee for the defense of belly as applied to people seems to have been formed by Fowler 1926. . . . Although none of our 19th-century sources mention the word, there seems to have been a notion around that it was not polite. Krapp 1927 notes that belly was not then used in polite conversation or writing with reference to human beings. This newspaper article refers to the question:
"[It's time] to scrap the Victorian version of belly and explain that since the gay nineties it has not been necessary to confuse belly with stomach or abdomen in order to show your good breeding." (Bronx Home News, 1937)

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