A rumbling noise caused by movement of gas through the intestines.
Originally from the Greek verb borboryzein (to rumble).
‘Hide not your talents. They for use were made/ What’s a sun-dial in the shade?’ implored Benjamin Franklin, taking a few syntactic liberties along the way. When I was in school, everyone in our class was in awe of a boy who hid not his talents, availing himself of every opportunity to display his particular party piece: in front of an endlessly fascinated crowd, he displayed the enviable ability to hold conversations with his own stomach on demand. He’d ask a question, pause for effect, press his stomach and instantly receive a reply. These replies came in a staggering variety of tones, from a brisk, emphatic denial to a perplexed squeak to a thunderous rumble of incontrovertible assent.
As ruthlessly as we’ve pilfered the world’s languages, English still can’t claim to have a word for every occasion: we lack an equivalent of l’esprit d’escalier, of schadenfreude, of most of the 27 Albanian words for a moustache. But, via Greek and Latin and French, we do have the perfect word for a rumbling stomach. Borborygmus entered the language in the mid-18th century, but has appeared in literature only sporadically.
Aldous Huxley acknowledged its comic potential in his longest novel, Point Counter Point. Willie Weaver, ‘a little man perpetually smiling, spectacles astride his long nose’, ‘declaims’ his way into a conversation by mentioning ‘the stertorous borborygms of the dyspeptic Carlyle’ and giving ‘the little cough which was his invariable comment on the best of his phrases.’ Lucy Tantamount gives the interjection roughly the respect it deserves: ‘Stertorous what?’
As well as being amusing, borborygmus (or borborygms, Huxley’s variant) can be alienating: in his Martian phase, Christopher Reid described the way ‘The borborygmus of a dove/ calls from the belly of its bush’. More recently, Srinjay Chakravarti included ‘The borborygmus of storm thunder’ in his poem The Antilles. Both poets reach for an anatomical image: where Reid has the belly of the bush, Chakravarti has the storm thunder ‘grumbl[ing] in cumulus intestines.’
Vladimir Nabokov, possessor of an intimidating vocabulary in at least three languages, used the adjectival form of borborygmus twice in Ada: in the longer first section, ‘all the toilets and waterpipes had been suddenly seized with borborygmic convulsions. This always signified, and introduced, a long-distance call.’
In the third section, Van searches for his half-sister (familial relationships in Ada are complex and, more often than not, incestuous) Lucinda: ‘She was not on the Promenade Deck where blanket-swathed old people were reading the number-one best seller Salzman and awaiting with borborygmic forebubbles the eleven o’clock bouillon.’ Incidentally, the reader is told, through an aside in an earlier chapter, that Salzman (a fictional novel) is a ‘Sapsucker paperback’. The sapsucker is a woodpecker which bears a resemblance to the Penguin symbol (not, it feels important to add, the same thing as bearing a resemblance to an actual penguin).
Perhaps there is a tendency to mistrust writers who reach for more esoteric vocabulary: Nabokov’s erudite monster Humbert Humbert remarks that ‘You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.’ Hemingway dismissed Faulkner by asking ‘Does he really think big emotions come from big words?’ In my own experience, ‘wordy’ (rarely ‘verbose’) is regarded as an insult on Creative Writing courses… and yet there has to be a place for what Hemingway called ‘the ten-dollar words’, if used wisely (Eliot’s advice is to be ‘precise but not pedantic’); compare ‘the borborygmus of a dove… from the belly of its bush’ with ‘the stomach-rumbling of a dove…’ and it’s hard not to conclude that the larger word holds greater meaning. Hide not your vocabulary, as Franklin might have phrased it.