Bellies, bags and bellows

Yesterday a friend asked me whether bellyache was considered rude or vulgar, and whether tummy ache or stomach ache were preferable in formal conversation. I thought that the word belly might be seen as vulgar and/or informal by some; that stomach ache might be better in formal situations, and that tummy ache tends to be used by and with children. Would you agree?

Belly comes from the Old English belg (bag, purse, bellows, pod, husk), from the Proto-Germanic*balgiz (bag), from the PIE base *bhelgh- (to swell), which is also the root of the Old Norse belgr (bag, bellows) and bylgja (billow); the Gothic balgs (wineskin), the Welsh bol (belly, paunch), the Irish bolg (abdomen, bulge, belly, hold, bloat), and the Latin bulga (leather sack). The English words bellows, billow, bolster, budget and bulge also come from the same root [source].

In English belly came to refer to the body during the 13th century, and the abdomen during the 14th century. By the late 16th century its meaning had been extended to cover the bulging part or concave convex surface of anything. In the late 18th century some people in England decided that belly was vulgar and banished it from speech and writing – replacing it with stomach or abdomen. [source].

11 thoughts on “Bellies, bags and bellows

  1. In the Northwestern US, I’m not sure anyone ever really says belly unselfconsciously, except in the fixed phrases “beer belly” and “quit yer bellyachin'”, with the nasal velar dropped and a syllabic /r/ or the /@r/ variant (depending on your idiolect/descriptive proclivities) for a full vowel. I’m not sure that belly in place of stomach would necessarily be informal (though it’s certainly not formal), so much as just out of place.

  2. I agree about tummy ache being better for children and stomach ache better in formal situations. Bellyache makes me think of the expression ‘to bellyache about something’. Apart from that, I can’t see any problem with it.

  3. As a working class boy growing up (Devon, UK, 1960’s)) “belly” was the word used. Later, when a teacher of English and working with a more middle class woman from the home counties – she commented that “belly” wasn’t a polite word. “Tummy” was what I should be saying.

    I told her what she could do with her mealy mouthed euphemisms! Cussedly, ‘ere since, I have never used “tummy”- a matter of principle.

    Class structure is encapsulated in every utterance in British English.

  4. No. “Belly” isn’t the least bit rude or vulgar, though it is a bit more informal than “stomach”. Also, “bellyache” is used as a verb in British English to mean “complaining”.


  5. I don’t think it’s considered rude anywhere in the US. “Bellyache” is unusual as a noun, though. Mostly it’s used as a verb, meaning “to complain”, with an implication that the complaints are unwarranted and/or excessive.

    Speaking of actual abdominal pain, “stomachache” is much more common.

  6. The words are also different in their implications of size (and perhaps these judgments are also affected by the age and the sex of the person referred to). Imagine a situation where someone is looking at a picture of an adult man/woman or a child and says:

    Look at his/her stomach!
    Look at his/her tummy!
    Look at his/her belly!

    Depending on the age and sex of the person, the presuppositions and implications you read into each sentence change, and there are some combinations that don’t really work very well. I’ll leave it to others to say what differences they see.

    Also, when I was a young child just immigrated to Canada from Britain, I had to get used to my school companions saying “belly button” while at home my parents called it a “tummy button”. Of course (as far as I know!) nobody calls a navel a “stomach button”.

  7. “By the late 16th century its meaning had been extended to cover the bulging part or concave surface of anything.”

    I was wondering, wouldn’t it be a _convex_ surface?

    Also, I have been under the impression that stomach refers to the organ that processes food, and belly refers to the part of the body that is visible on the outside. Is there such a distinction? In Finnish we have the words maha (organ) and vatsa (outside), but people tend to use them interchangeably.

  8. I never used the word “tummy”, even as a child. It sounds too silly to me… and belly is really only heard in “belly button” where I live.

  9. Rauli-

    Stomach as a medical term does refer strictly to the digestive organ, but the word is very commonly used by synecdoche for the abdomen as a whole. People can say for example that someone has a big stomach, when it is not strictly the stomach that is noticeably large (if we are able to see someone’s stomach, that person needs to get to a hospital emergency room fast), but the layers of tissue over the stomach that are large.

  10. Form my experience “stomach ache” is used commonly to describe digestive discomfort. I do not think “bellyache” is vulgar, if is look up at a dictionary this specific term is describing pain in the abdomen and especially in the stomach.

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