The Playful Roots of the Word Farce

Farc-, farct-, fars - a Latin verbal stem or root that means to stuff. This Latin verbal stem descends from the compound Indo-European root * bhareku, made from two simpler roots: bheu swell + * reg stretch, bind = * bhareku

This double meaning of ‘swelling and binding or stretching out’ suggests that even in Proto-Indo-European, the verb concerned stuffing fowl and other meats, and perhaps the making of paleolithic sausages!

When IE roots begin in bh-, they often enter Latin as f. Thus bhareku appears in Latin as the stem farc- in the verb farcire ‘to stuff.’

The principal parts of Latin verbs are often listed like this: farcio, farcire, farsi, fartum (farctum, farsum, farsitum) here displayed to show the different forms borrowed by later languages like French and English.

Some Latin Uses of the Verb
Farcire in Classical Latin meant ‘to stuff, cram, fill full.’

1. For example, Pliny, writer of Rome ’s first encyclopedia, wrote of a mason who set out
medios parietes farcire fractis caementis
‘to fill the interior of the walls with crushed stone.’
You can see the ancestor of our English word cement in the Latin caementis.
2. The passive form of the verb farcire was used to describe gagging as part of torture:
in os farciri pannos imperavit
‘he ordered rags to be stuffed in the [person’s] mouth.’

3. In Latin, the verb was associated with food too, as it could be used to mean ‘to fatten an animal’:
gallinas et anseres sic farcito
‘therefore let him fatten chickens and geese!’ (for a future feast).

4. A related noun, farcimen, meant ‘sausage, something stuffed.’

5. A fartor was a poulterer, one who fattened fowls as an occupation, while the adjective fartilis meant ‘able to be stuffed’ when applied to fowls being prepared for a meal.

Explanation: Use of the Asterisk in Word Study *
* An asterisk placed before a word or root means it is a supposed form, a hypothetical form, not backed up by printed evidence, but thought by linguists to have been a spoken form based on the printed evidence of a later word seemingly derived from such a hypothetical form. Why is the symbol * called an asterisk? It’s the Greek word for ‘little star.’ Greek aster ‘star’ + -iskos a common diminutive suffix of Greek nouns = asteriskos ‘little star.’

There was a transmissive form in Latin too, asteriscus. The frequent mispronunciations of the word, atrocious attempts like ‘ass-trick’ and ‘ass-crick,’ arise from speakers not looking squarely and carefully at the word. Asterisk is simple. The chief stress is on the first syllable (ASS-ter-isk) and every letter of the word is pronounced. Asterisk's earliest printed appearance in English is in a commentary paragraph of the Wyclif Bible in 1382 CE.

The Farce Root in Romance Languages, Descendants of Latin
In Vulgar Latin or perhaps later in early and medieval Church Latin, forms like farsa, *farsia, and farsura existed. For we have in early French farsse (1447 CE) and in early English farse (1530 CE) with a liturgical meaning.

A farse was a word or phrase inserted or ‘stuffed’ into the ordained words of prayers and of the Roman Catholic Mass. From the 9th to the 12th centuries, tropes (extra phrases) began to be added to the music and the texts of the Latin liturgy.

For example, there is a short prayer called the kyrie eleison, which is Greek for ‘Lord, have mercy.’ The syllables of these two words are stretched over many notes of music in plainsong and its later form, Gregorian chant. The choirs chanting these beautiful prayers sometimes improvised, as all true artists are compelled to do.

Personal Aside about Musical Improvisers
I can briefly abide musical improvisers except the arrogant scatty-wadda-wadda-doodoo- artistes who, for example, burble their way through the metamorphotic destruction of an exquisite Cole Porter song. What impudent jazz singers do not seem to realize is a simple truth: Cole Porter wrote the tune, not the scat singer. When you, jazzbo, have shown the listener that you can reproduce what Porter so brilliantly composed and lyricked, then and only then, my gulping gargling crow, shall I permit you to assault my ears with your raucous scatting, but only once shall I pollute my velvet auricles, before returning to a rendition of the master’s work that has not been defiled by upstart unmusicality of the most abject and vulgar mode.

More Farse
One common farse in the kyrie consisted of inserting one of the Ten Commandments between each kyrie and eleison. The words of the commandment were often in the vernacular or native language of the singer. Another form of farse recorded in marginalia on a medieval manuscript of prayers has the farses written in thus:
kyrie genitor ingenite, vera essentia, eleison
‘O Lord, unbegotten begetter, true being in all things, have mercy.’
The ‘unbegotten begetter’ referred to Christ’s birth of the Virgin Mary.

Medieval Mystery Plays & the Birth of Theatrical Farce
Farses spoken or sung in vernaculars like Early French also served as a gloss on the Latin of the Mass, of prayers, and of epistles and readings, to make the congregation, who knew little or no Latin, aware of the meaning of the texts. Lessons and Epistles so altered were called in early French épitres farcies (‘stuffed’ epistles), used especially at important times in the church calendar, such as Christmas Day, to ensure the laity understood the story of the birth of Christ.
The next development in the meaning of farse saw the word applied to parts of mystery plays. Also called miracle plays, these religious dramas arose during the 13th century, when French trade guilds put on plays based on Biblical stories. At first performed inside churches,  early medieval church authorities quickly forced the somewhat vulgar plays to be performed outside the church, often on stages built on wagons, so the players could move from town to town. The most famous mystery play in English is Everyman.

The raised, sometimes wheeled platform on which the Chester mystery plays were performed, an early outdoor “stage.”

Once outside, players felt freer to include more outrageous and audience-pleasing theatrical devices: devils emerging from fiery hells to round up the damned with pitchforks, acrobats, indecent clowning with groping, stuffed codpieces, and gigantic dildos, plus satire of local authorities and bits of more innocent tomfoolery. These gags inserted or stuffed into a Biblical play, as one might stuff ground meat into a sausage, were called farce in Old French by 1420 CE when, in a manuscript of miracle play texts, we find “Miracles de plusiers malades/ En farses pour être mains fades.” (miracle cures for several diseases [are shown] in our little acts [but they are only] to gain the applause of tasteless peasants (pour être mains fades, literally ‘to be vulgar hands.’)

In 16th century Italy, these farses formed the basis for commedia dell’arte with stock characters like Arlecchino, Punchinello, Colombina, and Pantalone who influenced comedies by Ben Jonson and Molière, and gave rise to characters like Harlequin and Mr. Punch of Punch and Judy shows.

Colombina, one of the stock characters in commedia dell’arte

Bye-Bye, Bible!
Eventually, some of the plays lost all their Biblical content. By the 15th century in France, by the early 17th century in England, such plays ‘stuffed’ full of buffoonery were called farces, their sole and noble purpose being to make the audience laugh. But laughter may induce free thoughts about a status quo. In 1447, at Dijon in France , a lawsuit was brought against the performers of a miracle play called Mystère de St Eloi. Royal prosecutors alleged that a farce had been inserted into the play to excite political ridicule of the king of France and his religious bumboy, the Dauphin.

We are NOT Amused
The Vatican, true to its innate, pompous, religious fascism, has never been amused by farces lampooning clergy with sex jokes. Given the huge number of Roman Catholic priests busily buggering little children all over the world, one can perhaps understand if not sympathize with their collective Holinesses deep concern about truth-revealing humour. Nothing seems to annoy fascists more than being mocked.

Then too, church officials cast a cold eye on ordinary people having fun. Jesus wept, but—if we are to believe Holy Writ—he never laughed. Ha! And Oy!

The Wagging Finger of Puritan Disapproval
In any case, with vulgar farces lampooning church officials in scurrilous and sexually suggestive language, the Vatican boiled over into many a hissy-fit. In 1570, Pope Pius V banned farce. In the middle of the 17th century, a sour Puritan grump named Oliver Cromwell, after beheading King Charles I, likewise tried to destroy English theater, an action as futile as Pius V’s ban. These funny romps were not called farces in England until after the Reformation. Before that, knockabout comedies were stage-jigs or drolls.
From Vaudeville to "Fawlty Towers"
Farce grew in popularity during the later 16th century in England and France, and never looked back, as it sailed through British music halls, vaudeville, and into early silent films as pie-throwing slapstick. It is with us still in timid, debased, politically-correct television sitcoms and in the much more robust and uproarious genius of modern playwrights like Joe Orton, whose splendid farces include Loot, What the Butler Saw, and an unjustly neglected British television farce, The Erpingham Camp, one of the funniest plays I have ever read in English. Beside Joe Orton in my personal list of farce favourites I would put John Cleese in the exquisite BBC hotel comedy series Fawlty Towers. Orton however took far more giddy, over-the-top, anti-societal chances than John Cleese ever did.

                  Joe Orton 1933-1967, farceur extraordinaire

Medical & Culinary Meanings of the Farce Root
Farce that sausage then, but beware of myocardial infarction (which term we explicate below).

The culinary meaning in French of farcir and in English of the verb to farce ‘to stuff foods,’ continued parallel to the religious and theatrical uses of the verbs and nouns derived from Latin farcire. An English vowel gradation gave the noun forcemeat (initially *farcemeat) ‘meat, vegetables, etc. chopped and spiced and used to stuff fowls and sausages.’

In France, a veterinary noun arose to name a disease of horses called farcin, a chronic form of glanders, being a congestive inflammation of a horse’s lymph vessels. Farcin derived from a Late Latin name for the disease, farsiminum.

Farcin entered English unchanged, and then was shortened to farcy, in terms like button farcy and cattle farcy. In button farcy, small tubercular nodes called buds form in the skin of a horse’s legs, thorax, and abdomen.

Further French elaborations of farce gave farceur and farceuse, the former borrowed into English to denote an actor skilled in low comedy and slapstick. In Old French farceur also meant ‘sausage-maker’ or patissier who made paté and fancy stuffings. From this occupation, several French surnames arise: Farce, Farcé, Farcis, and Farçat.

The intensive Latin verb infarcire is the root of a contemporary medical term. Most medical nouns in English stem from classical Greek and Latin words. For example, myocardial: mys, myos Greek, muscle + kardia Greek, heart

Thus, myocardium is heart muscle, cardiac muscle that surrounds the heart in a tough, thick layer. So follows our etymology of the medical phrase: myocardial infarction.

                  The grey area is the infarcted tissue.

myocardialis Scientific Latin, of the heart muscle + infarctio, infarctionis Latin, stuffing a sausage until it is full

A myocardial infarction is a heart attack due to the closing off of a coronary artery that causes an infarct of the heart muscle.

In an infarct, part of the heart muscle dies from lack of oxygen because blood supply via the coronary artery has been interrupted. The artery may be said to have been occluded, obstructed or stuffed by a thrombus, that is, a blood clot.

Infarction is a 17th-century coinage belonging to the discredited theory of humours, and so the word is not truly appropriate to modern cardiology. But some old words die slowly. Originally, infarction referred to a ‘stuffing together’ of bodily humours.

I hope you enjoyed this little excursus. Let’s wrap up with a pun from the Star Wars movies: May the farce be with you! May the infarct not be!

Bill Casselman, March 10, 2017

Text copyright 2017 by William Gordon Casselman


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Increase your knowledge of English words by following the odd and manifold meanings of a very old term like farce