What's in a Sound?
February 2006

The other day I was enjoying my lunch in the company cafeteria, along with seven or eight co-workers.  The urge hit me to let out a nice, deep, satisfying Coca-Cola -propelled carbonation belch.  And so belch I did.  Instantly I was scolded by the company nurse, who was sitting opposite me and enjoyed the belch nearly as much as I did.  "That's disgusting!", she barked scornfully.  Then she imperiously demanded that I say "excuse me".  Needless to say, I ignored her.

Now before I get into the matter of how or why a belch could be so disgusting, what I'm really curious about is why it's OK to belch as long as you say "excuse me" after you do it.  Is it like lighting a match after leaving a particularly foul-smelling stench in the bathroom, hoping that the sulfur smell might cover up the deathly stink of fermenting feces?  What's so soothing about the words "excuse me"?

I tried uttering "excuse me" to myself but felt no effect.  No endorphin rush, no feeling of euphoria or even mild satisfaction.  A mirror did not help.  Then I asked someone nearby to speak the phrase to me.  No difference.  I had him say it several times, and still I didn't feel anything.  I asked him to belch and then say excuse me.  I felt absolutely no change in my state of emotion at all.  Not after the belch, and not after excusing himself.  While I lacked a controlled environment that meets the rigorous demands of truly scientific analysis, empirical testing reveals that the phrase "excuse me" is apparently inert and possesses no tangible properties nor yields any measurable effects.

The subject of manners is utterly fascinating.  I could ignore it forever!  Perhaps if what's left of north American manners and etiquette were not so entirely arbitrary, the subjects just might hold my attention longer than a picosecond.

What is a belch?

A belch is just the gases in the stomach making their way upwards, vibrating past the esophageal sphincter and eventually exiting the mouth.  Unless you have been consuming garlic or radishes or some other barely digestible food, a belch is primarily odorless oxygen and nitrogen, and perhaps equally odorless carbon dioxide if you have been drinking carbonated refreshments.  So, a belch is a sound.  And the sound of a belch does not translate to any kind of word or phrase in any spoken language on this planet.  In a handful of countries an audible belch signifies a feeling of contentedness with your meal and is considered to be an accolade for the chef.  But it's still not word.  A belch is just a meaningless sound.

Apologies for stomping on George Carlin's territory, but I can't fathom what's so disgusting about this sound.  Unlike Carlin's "heavy seven" - the handful of words supposedly so profane that by decree of the FCC and America's repressed bible belt constituency they can never be uttered on public radio or television - a belch has absolutely no negative connotation.  Not here.  Not anywhere.  A belch knows no language or dialect, and has no translation.  It is just a sound.

The nurse reflexively blurting out her feelings of offense in response to my belch, is significant of thorough and flawless brainwashing, and her behavior was a perfect Pavlovian response.  Her parents, and most likely her parents' parents, etc. no doubt instructed her from day one that belching is disgusting.  Equally doubtless is that stern behavior modifications methods were used to reinforce that impression.  To a parent, belching I admit can indeed be fairly disgusting.  That is because when an infant belches, the activity is not infrequently associated with reflux of the infant's food.  While, yes, that can be disgusting, or at least a bit messy and annoying, that is still not a reason to brand the sound as disgusting when the actual problem boils down to undeveloped gastric controls and/or the after-effects of doting parents' excessive feeding impulses.  Reflux or not, a belch is just a belch, and it's still a mere sound.

I don't deny that the nurse felt genuinely disgusted.  What I do find amazing is the depth of brainwashing required to convince a mother of fully adult offspring - and a nurse no less - that a forty year old man producing a first-octave note without the help of a tuba or a pipe organ is so shocking and vile an act that it requires swift and firm retribution.


Belching is considered to be impolite in most places, I admit, if not necessarily agree.  But "disgusting" seems much too emphatic a word and the deeply shocked reactions are far too strong a response.  Then to think someone can make the boo-boo all better by grinning sheepishly and numbly reciting the phrase "excuse me", is plainly absurd.

A belch is a harmless, meaningless sound and nothing more.  It's a sound made naturally by everyone, and attempts at suppressing that sound may result in physical discomfort or the production of other more involuntary sounds whose side-effects may in fact be odoriferous and tangibly disgusting.  The only reason you mindless automatons think a belch is disgusting is because your guardians told you so and you were too happy to take their word for it.  If they had spent as much time telling you the color blue was disgusting, many of you blindly conforming meat sacks would never leave the house on clear days, sooner than question why you've had to carry an umbrella your entire life.

Next time something offends you, think for a moment about why it offends you.  Then SHUT THE FUCK UP.


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