Woolfer Words: “Gut”
I was chatting with a friend recently about menopause and the many bodily indignities we suffer during it. Hot flashes, vaginal dryness, teenage-boy levels of B.O.—but the one that really got her mad was the gut. “It’s so depressing,” she said. Exercise, diet, none of it changes anything. “I’m at the point where, as long as my boobs stick out more than my belly,” she said, “I’m doing good.”
I looked down. I am not chesticularly endowed, but I have an expansive midsection. “Welp,” I said.
The word’s a bit onomatopoeic—slap your middle and what you hear is gut. Gut is over 1,000 years old and remains largely unchanged since it first appeared in English. It was a medical term initially, referring to the abdominal cavity and specifically the intestines (a word which didn’t appear in English for another 500 years).
Medieval medicine had an oddly holistic view of the body, even if it wasn’t an anatomically correct one. Health—physical, emotional, and mental—was influenced by the movement and temperament of specific organs and fluids in them. Feeling sluggish? Too much phlegm in the system. Depressed? It’s your spleen’s fault. Are you a Lady With Opinions? Whoa, nelly, you are officially hysterical: we have to get that womb to quit wandering all over your body, making you uptight and giving you Modern Ideas! But the one organ that keeps showing up again and again as both a diagnostic tool and a cure is the gut. Medieval doctors spent most of their time evaluating what their patients ate and excreted and changing up their diets to get them back on track.
Perhaps because the gut was so important, the word gut began gaining new uses in the later Middle Ages. By the 1300s, it referred to the seat of appetites of all kinds; by the 1500s, the word was used of the innermost parts of someone or something. Gut gave substance and heft to things: smart folks were said to have their guts in their brains; people grieved to their guts; worthless people weren’t fit to carry guts to a bear.
What’s surprising is that it took so long for the word guts to be applied to the attributes that had long been held to be influenced by the gut: courage, energy, force of character. That meaning didn’t show up until the 1800s. And it wasn’t until the 1920s that our guts had reactions that, because they were so internal, were uncontrollable and should be heeded. Patent lawyers in the 1930s thought the “gut reaction” to an idea was evidence of its innovation. Listen to your gut, we tell our kids and ourselves. The gut will not steer you wrong.
Ironic, then, that around the same time we were supposed to be listening to our guts, we were also desperate to get rid of them. Slenderizing equipment, the TrimTwist, crunches, Pilates. The desire to bust belly flab is so ubiquitous that it’s even been immortalized in those terrible ads you see everywhere online. How can I trust it when I don’t even want it around?
My gut (literal and figurative) has saved me from a world of hurt. The curdle of unease I felt about that fitness-obsessed 30-year-old who was just a little too into 18-year-old me; the flutter about the midsection that accompanied my marriage proposal; the cold love-bite of the fat calipers nibbling me around the waist during my prenatal checkups when I was losing too much weight too quickly, and was, for the first time in my life, desperate to be fatter. All these times, that belly I wished was gone came through for me. I did not date the creep. I married a good person. I gained 50 pounds eating nothing but peanut butter and whipped cream for five months and was never happier to hear strangers in the street tell me I was absolutely enormous.
The Indo-European root that gave us gut means “to pour.” It’s a word of bounty, of overflow—we get the words gush and geyser from the same root. The root has a secondary meaning: to pour out as a libation or offering. It’s a word that carries in its belly the dual ideas of intention and abandon, ritual and spontaneity. Etymologically speaking, the gut is a place into which we pour everything, and from which everything flows.
The more we move forward, the backwards-er we go: recent studies suggest that the gut really does affect the whole body, even mental health. The gut is the second brain, they say, and so I have made peace with mine—my bread-dough belly and my critical innermost self. Sometimes it nags me to call my kids; sometimes it clamors for ice cream. But I have vowed to stop ignoring it and let it flow, literally and figuratively.
Kory Stamper is the author of the best-selling nonfiction book Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, which chronicles her two-decade career as a dictionary writer for Merriam-Webster. Her writing on words and language has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, and on New York Magazine’s The Cut. She is currently a full-time writer, has two adult daughters, and will not cut coffee or alcohol out of her diet though her gyno says it would help with the night sweats.