I spend about ten hours a week on a train, one hour each way to work, five days a week. That’s a lot of time spent in a very small space in the company of complete strangers.
And in the majority of these instances, those strangers are nothing but polite and respectful. We commuters leave each other alone so we can read, work, fiddle with our SmartPhones or just catch up on sleep.
But every so often, a fellow train stands out for all the wrong reasons.
It was Friday evening, the 19.00 train, full of people winding down after a long week. The only seat I could find was at a table, so I took it and started reading my book (a cheap Harlan Coben thriller, if you’re interested).
About twenty minutes into the journey, the man next to me took out his phone to call someone. Nothing wrong with that – there’s so little signal on the journey that most conversations last only a minute or so before ‘Hello? Hello? Can you hear me?” But this man was obviously a member of a top secret phone network as his conversation went on and on.
And it went on and on at a volume I’d describe as SHOUTING. He didn’t appear to be shouting angrily, just literally shouting his part of the conversation.
I sent him a couple of sideways looks in my very British passive-aggressive way. But the deafening conversation continued.
I became aware of others in the carriage turning round to see what the noise was (yes, he really was that loud), and people started to make eye contact with me as if to say ‘Do something about it.’
So I gently tapped the man’s arm and said ‘Sir, do you mind talking more quietly?’ I also gave the universal hand gesture for quietening down in case he couldn’t hear me above the noise he was making.
To give him credit, he did indeed quieten down. He stopped SHOUTING and started talking more normally, and the call ended pretty quickly.
Phew! There was no nastiness, no scene, and I was the saviour of my fellow passengers. Smugly, I settled back to my novel.
Two minutes later, I heard it in my right ear.
He’d let out one of the loudest burps I’d ever heard, and certainly the loudest I’d ever heard in a confined space like a train.
Two minutes later, he did it again.
At that point, I realised I’d been completely outfoxed by this man. He’d won and I’d lost. So I moved to a different carriage on the train to enjoy the last bit of my journey belch-free.
It did occur to me after I’d moved carriages that, to my mind, he was definitely belching, rather than burping. To me, burping is a shorter and more contained sound; belching is more of a sustained, ranine noise.
I decided to look the two words up to see what the semantic overlap was between them. I know they’re synonymous, but do we use belching when the sound is more foul, or burp when it’s slightly politer?
All the online dictionaries that I can see treat the two words as being completely synonymous, with no sense of one word being stronger or ruder than the other. But what did catch my eye was that ‘burp’ wasn’t the ancient English word I imagined it to be.
‘Burp’ is actually a twentieth century word, first recorded in the 1930s. The word’s origins are described as ‘imitative’. Here’s an early usage from ‘Etude’ in 1934: “Saxophonists also go in for this slapping effect; when done by the larger members of the family, it bears a ludicrous resemblance to the ‘burping’ of a frog.”
By contract, ‘belch’ is a very old English word, appearing for the first time with its vulgar meaning in c.1000 – “Breodað he and bælceð.” The same word was also used for ‘vomit’, as seen here in the Tragicall Tales of 1587: “The venomd worme Had bealchd his poyson out” – although this sense has died out.
Although its roots were vulgar, ‘belch’ also has a number of politer meanings, including the more general sense of an eruption of words from the mouth (in an entirely non-vulgar way), as seen here in Wyclif’s Psalms of 1500: “Myn herte hath teld ethir belkid out a good word.” Volcanoes also ‘belch’ out fire and lava, a sense Milton uses in Paradise Lost in 1667: “A Hill‥whose griesly top Belch‘d fire and rowling smoak.”
But my favourite meaning of ‘belch’ is this from Thomas Carlyle’s French Revolution. I’m not entirely sure what it means – but it’s definitely a phrase I’m going to work into conversation this week: “Rusty firelocks belch after him.”
So this is a really long and roundabout way of saying that my fellow passenger could have been equally burping or belching – but either way, he was still pretty foul and quite ruined my Friday night trip home!