belly and tummy

I picked up a free copy of the Financial Times's FT Magazine in the airport, and was interested to read this bit in an article about body-part names and communication between doctors and patients.

Technically speaking, the anatomical structure the consultant was looking at was the abdomen, which is schematically divided by doctors into a three-by-three grid. From top right to bottom left the squares are named: right upper quadrant, epigastric, left upper quadrant, right flank, umbilicus, left flank, right iliac fossa, hypogastric, left iliac fossa. The organs are clustered in each square – the liver and the gallbladder reside in RUQ, for example. When a patient has RIF pain, you know to think of appendicitis.

But what doctors in England haven’t quite solved yet is how I should ask you to show me this space. The medical word, “abdomen”, is not used by many people. But “stomach” is factually wrong. (Your stomach – LUQ – is the springy bag in which your food first lands to be churned before it continues on through your intestine; most “stomach ache” is felt nowhere near the real stomach – what most people point to is their umbilicus, underneath which lies the small bowel.) “Belly” is American. “Tummy” is a nursery term, but English doctors use it in parallel with the anatomical terms. You learn to say “poo” for faeces, too. But if questions such as “Have you had your bowels open?” and “Have you passed any stool?” are met with blankness, there is not much alternative.

Belly is American?  That didn't sit right with me, as if a doctor asked me to show her my belly, I'd find it very strange--though I might suspect that the doctor spoke a different dialect from mine. I use tummy (or the anatomically-incorrect stomach).  To me, belly particularly signals a round tummy--hence (orig. AmE) beer bellyBabies have bellies, Buddha statues have bellies, I have a belly--but let's not go there. One also hears people saying, typically while pinching more than an inch, I'm getting a belly.  In all these uses, it's not the same as tummy or non-technical stomach.  It describes a paunch (which, incidentally, used to just mean 'abdomen', without the negative connotations), but with rounder connotations.

The doctor writing in the magazine is not alone in this assumption that belly is American.  In fact, this amateur (and very defensive about it, while not trying very hard*) BrE/AmE word-lister assumes that tummy is exclusively BrE.

But, while I had my doubts about the BrE/AmE tummy/belly divide, I've often heard tummy-button in the UK (though mostly from antipodean yoga/Pilates instructors), and never in the US. So, I decided to check it out.

First, the history. Belly goes all the way back to Old English, where it originally meant a bag, but from at least as early as the 13th century, it's used to mean a human or animal stomach and from at least the 14th century, it's used for the abdomen.  So, it certainly did not originate in AmE.  Tummy (a baby-talk simplification of stomach), in contrast, is only seen in print from the 19th century.


Next, the usage.  I looked up stomach, belly, and tummy in British and American corpora of writing and speech, and calculated the percentage of the total number of instances of any of those words that was represented by any one of those words. Here are my results:

corpusstomachbellytummy
BNC BrE 70%20%10%
COCA AmE      63%33%4%

From this we can tell (a) belly is used quite a bit in BrE as well as AmE, and tummy is more frequent in BrE than AmE.  I don't think this can just be due to differences in formality across the corpora, since if the AmE corpus had more formal writing in it, we'd expect the stomach percentage to be higher.

Now, within belly in either corpus, many instances do not refer literally to human abdomens.  There are lots of instances of idioms like in the belly of the beast or a fire in one's belly.  There are also lots of belly-dancing.  To see whether the AmE bellies might be more specifically fat tummies, I looked at paunch, to see if AmE didn't need it as much--but that's not the case. In both corpora, paunch occurs between 5 and 6 times per million words.

As for the hypothesis that belly is more 'round', I note that I and my UK friends do say I'm getting/I've got a bit of a tummy, but looking in the corpora, there are a couple of instances of get/getting/got a belly in each corpus but tummy only occurs in that context in the AmE corpus.  So, in BrE, belly is used for the 'rounded abdomen' meaning, just as in AmE, and AmE uses tummy in that context too.

What about bellybutton and tummy-button? OED has the former dated to the 19th century, but the latter only in the mid-20th century.  COCA has zero instances of tummy-button, tummybutton, or tummy button.  BNC has just one.  Belly(-)button seems to be the default colloquialism for 'navel' in either dialect. In a strange turn of orthography, the joined-up bellybutton is by far the most common spelling in the BNC, but two-word belly button is very strongly the favo(u)red spelling in COCA.  This is in contrast to another observation that I've made here, that AmE joins up compound words in writing more readily than BrE does.  In that post, I noted that the Shorter Oxford Dictionary recommends pot belly, while the American Heritage Dictionary likes potbelly.

I'm writing this in the Helsinki airport, so am limited to dialect resources that are on-line--and I'm not finding them to be helpful at the moment. While the evidence does show American English using belly much more than modern British English, I still have the feeling that there is some  regional variation at work here, since it's not a word that I would use for a human abdomen outside the 'paunchy' and 'baby' experiences.  But that's my western New York State perspective.  How would you feel if your doctor asked to look at your belly? (Don't forget to tell us where you're from!)

 

*In discouraging corrections to his list, he says 'life is too short to worry'--about accuracy, presumably.  Life is also too short to spend on writing word lists without caring to do it right, I'd say.

53 comments

  1. I'm British in America. My children's paediatrician says "belly" but apart from when discussing babies or dogs, I haven't heard any of my new England friends use the word. The word doesn't sit well with me because when I was a child (in the 60s) it was considered a 'rude' word, like 'bum'. In fact when I was very young I thought 'belly' was another word for 'willy' which was also a forbidden word. (For the record, my mother taught us to call the belly-button by its proper name from the start.)

    If my doctor asked to look at my belly, I wouldn't be surprised, because doctors here often use 'common' names for body parts and bodily functions but I might be slightly affronted at the use of what I would perceive as a childish word to refer to my abdomen.

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  2. When I was a little kid (mid to late 90's, NYC), I remember my doctor asking me to show her either my stomach or my tummy--but never my belly. Now as an adult (still in NYC), I think doctors have higher expectations, as I've only been asked to show my abdomen.

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  3. I'm interested in the aspect of the compounding of nouns - I've recently been quite addicted to the Facebook version of Boggle, which I often fail to get a good score in because of the number of compound nouns that it allows, thus I'm inferring that it allows the American usages. I tend to sniff at many of them, being British and considering that many of them are in fact two word terms and would be described as such in crossword puzzles over here. And there seems to be no particular rule to what gets compounded and what doesn't. Can any American user shed more light on this?

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  4. @Janibach: What's the "proper name" for belly-button that you were taught?

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  5. "Oh, stop your bellyachin'." That's a term I've heard here in upstate NY for "stop complain'!" And the navel is a/k/a the belly button.

    Whereas, in Los Angeles, the well-to-do can get a tummy tuck to remove a bit of the gut.

    I asked my six y.o. old daughter what SHE called her midsection, and she said stomach or belly or tummy.

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  6. I'm on a train and away from my dictionaries, so forgive me for not checking myself, but does AHD really prefer potbelly for contexts other than the attributive - e.g. potbelly stove, as opposed to "that guy has a pot belly"?

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  7. I think of belly as something more used when talking to children though I wouldn't think twice if a doctor asked me to show them my belly. I would be more used to the word stomach. I think that in this case the word stomach is appropriate and actually has two meanings. Since I can't show the doctor my internal stomach, then I will be showing my abdomen and understand that I have more than the internal stomach in that area. I don't assume that belly has a "paunch" meaning when I hear or use it. I would say "beer belly" or "pot belly" to get across that idea since for me belly doesn't have to have that meaning. I am from Tennessee.

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  8. American (Pacific NW), and I wouldn't think much of it if a doctor asked to see my belly. It would sound a little informal, but it's perfectly understandable to me that an MD might be hesitant to use the word "stomach" to mean abdomen.

    If they asked to see my tummy, I wouldn't necessarily think much of it, but I would notice it. I'd also be tempted to reply, "Are you a doctor or a pediatrician?"

    The connotation of belly specifically meaning a round belly hadn't really occurred to me before. I suppose, now that I think about it, I might agree that it's slightly less likely that a doctor would use the term "belly" with an unfamiliar female patient.

    I'm also reminded of the rock group Belly from the early 1990s. As I recall, the lead singer picked the name because it was a word that was simultaneously
    pretty and ugly.

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  9. Grew up in southern US, now in the Midwest. I say "belly" and would never let "tummy" out of my mouth. It's a lot like Mama/Mommy for me -- most people in my region prefer "Mommy," but I am exclusively "Mama." I should say that I think "tummy" is more prevalent than "belly" in the Midwest, but that might just be because it grates on me and so I notice it more!

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    1. I'm a Southern Virginian gal...we say belly, tummy and stomach. Most common is belly..... my kids call me Mom and yet, I grew up saying Momma, and still call her that, even though she's been gone since 1966. Others say mama, further north, they say Mother, which I detest, hence, my daughter calls me this to get my goat. It's a regional slang, for every state in the U. S. My brothers live in North Carolina and Arkansas, and none of us talk alike. My sister lived in Washington state, so she had a completely different dialect, also.
      But, as Hank, Jr.says.........
      WE SAY GRACE
      WE SAY MA'AM
      IF AIN'T INTO THAT
      THEN WE DON'T GIVE A DAMN.....
      NO OFFENCE TO ANYONE

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  10. I (BrE) wouldn't be particularly surprised to hear a doctor use any of the terms but I'd most naturally say stomach. Beer belly and tummy tuck sound natural from their alliteration.

    I do remember at primary school a teacher telling us never to tell her we had belly-ache but to say tummy-ache instead (or was it stomach-ache? This was early seventies so my memory isn't perfect). I'm struggling to remember her specific reason, but I have a feeling she saw belly as baby talk. Given that we would have been about 8 at the time sounding childish would have been pretty reasonable.

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  11. When I was a small boy sixty years ago, belly, tummy and stomach were synonymous. Belly was the vulgar word that my mother taught me never to say. My father would sometimes refer jocularly to a Darby Kelly. Tummy was somehow more polite than stomach — although the latter was acceptable (and, I think, accurate) when discussing ulcers.

    I suspect that your 70%20%10 figure for British use of stomach, belly, tummy reflects the fact that, like me, many have been conditioned to see belly as vulgar and tummy as childish. Belly is twice as common as tummy because a touch of vulgarity is not always seen as a bad thing.

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  12. "Belly" was very rude to my grandparents' and parents' generation (BrE - Sussex; grandparents born in 1890s, parents in 1920s); by the time I came along in the 1950s it still wasn't used much - one said "tummy" - but had lost its power to shock. Our equivalent, I think, was "arse"....

    I would expect the doctor to ask me to show my tummy or my stomach; not, I think, my belly. Actually, I'd expect him or her to say "Let's have a look, then", rather than be specific....

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  13. Huh. My doctor (accent is west coast American but I've never asked where he is from) says "Do you have pain in your abdomen?" If he were to say "Belly" I wouldn't think anything of it, but if he said "tummy" I'd definitely give him some snark. Of course, I've gone in moaning "My guts hurt!!" (meaning intestines) so I guess I can't talk! (I'm from So. California originally)

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  14. I think my grandmother (BrE born 1920s, Sussex) would find 'belly' to be rather rude. Not sure about my mum. It doesn't seem rude to me but it does sound odd, and it does sound more American to me. I certainly would never use it myself outside of the context of 'belly-button' or 'beer belly'.

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  15. Of course! I'd forgotten. Michael Flanders (1922-1975) wrote:

    Ma's out, Pa's out-let's talk rude:
    Pee - Po - Belly - Bum - Drawers!

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  16. Australian here...

    I say "belly-button" but "tummy ache". I wouldn't be surprised if a doctor asked to see either my tummy or my belly or my abdomen.

    If I'm at the doctor I describe my pain as being in my abdomen, but I've been to a lot of doctors to talk about abdominal pain so that's probably why.

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  17. I'm British and I'm pretty sure that I've never heard "tummy button". Could that be a baby word? If so, I might have heard it but forgotten...

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  18. My father, a GP in the Southern US, often uses 'belly' to talk to patients about the abdomen, regardless of the size & shape; he would only use 'tummy' with children. I do hear other people around here say belly occasionally but for adults I'd say the most common word would be stomach.

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  19. My (BrE, South Welsh, Wiltshire and Liverpool in the main, plus Yorkshire recently) expectation would be belly-button or navel. (My academic background is biomedical sciences so correct terms for everything are pretty much automatic for me personally.)

    I don't think I've ever had to see a doctor with abdominal problems, but anything from guts, tummy, belly, stomach to abdomen wouldn't really surprise me not offend me. I guess guts is more likely to be mid to lower abdomen, stomach upper abdomen, even when in quadrants more suited to being over the liver than over the stomach!

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  20. I think of "gut" as intestine, or more informally internal organs. i would never describe a tummy tuck as removing some gut(s).

    It is news to me (NE US, age 56) that "belly" is vulgar.

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  21. I would be interested in how the corpora compare for "belly(-)ache". To me (southern BrE), "belly" is vulgar in BrE (and, I would have assumed, possibly non-vulgar but still slang in AmE) but "belly(-)ache" is pure AmE.

    Until today, my guess would have been that "belly(-)ache" would only appear in BrE writing in conscious imitation of AmE (and then, mostly, in "stop your bellyaching"). This discussion suggests that "belly" (and, hence, "belly(-)ache") may have become more normal in BrE with younger people.

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  22. I'm usually in parallel with your senses, Lynne, because I grew up near you (though a couple of decades earlier) in central NY. But for me, "belly" doesn't carry the paunch sense. It's slightly informal, though, and I wouldn't expect it from my doctor--but he knows I'm cognizant of medical terminology, and we communicate on that level.

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  23. BrE (London) and vastly aged: I have "stomach" as the word I'd use; "tummy" as the word I'd use to a child; "belly" as rather coarse. In practice I would expect a doctor to steer clear of words I might misunderstand and say things like "And is the pain here?" either indicating his/her own anatomy or (more likely) pointing at me as though I were something on a butcher's slab.

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  24. A childhood (girl) friend of mine in the late 1950s thought, like Janibach, that 'belly' meant the male organ, presumably because it was then treated as a rude word in middle England.

    Kate (Derby, UK)

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  25. AmE. Midwest. Abdomen, stomach, belly, and tummy all mean the same thing to me, except that abdomen is clinical, stomach is formal, belly less so, and tummy sounds childish. I would expect my doctor to refer to my abdomen or stomach, perhaps my belly, but not my tummy if I were over the age of 12. Belly does not carry the rounded or paunchy meaning for me. I'm fascinated to learn that belly used to be considered rude in certain areas.

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  26. @ Carin: "I'm on a train and away from my dictionaries, so forgive me for not checking myself, but does AHD really prefer potbelly for contexts other than the attributive - e.g. potbelly stove, as opposed to "that guy has a pot belly"?"

    As far as I understand the rules about hyphenating compound adjectives the option you describe isn't possible at all. It would either be 'He has a potbelly' and 'potbelly stove' if written as one word or'He has a pot belly' and 'a pot-belly stove'.

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  27. In California... it's a belly button and a tummy ache. I've only ever heard a doctor ask about abdomens (even the pediatricians).

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  28. I think I'd say tummy by default and abdomen if I were trying to be formal. During my recent pregnancy the midwife always asked to feel my "tummy". (BrE, southern England)

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  29. In the fifties my mother taught me a rhyme which seemed quite odd to me even then - depending as it did on the daring vulgarity of using the word belly at all:

    Mary ate cake and Mary ate jelly.
    Mary went home with a pain in her...
    Now don't get excited
    Now don't be misled
    For Mary went home with a pain in her head.

    Atlantis.seeker, Canada

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  30. @ B&j - my grandmother taught me the same rhyme in the 1950s, and it wasn't until I went to boarding-school in the 1960s and learnt a similar verse (Up in the mountains, high in the grass, down came an elephant, sliding on his ****) that I realised what the point was!

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  31. Have we all forgotten about "midsection"?

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  32. I was surprised when I learned, many years ago now but still during the Internet era, that there exist British people (quite a lot, actually) who consider "navel" the standard term and "belly button" infantile.

    For me (Australian with a few childhood years in Britain), "navel" is a technical term, "belly button" the only option in normal conversation, and "tummy button" for use with young children (only because I remember my parents using it).

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  33. @ Outerhoard - yes, I (BrE) certainly think "belly-button" or "tummy-hole" (which is what I called is as a child) are childish terms, and would refer to my navel.

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  34. My wife's an English GP working in Sussex (AmE: family doctor/physician) and she says she'd normally avoid having to specify the area by saying "May I examine you now?", the patient having already stated the general location of the problem.

    However, if necessary, she'd most often use "tummy", but might use "belly" to a child, reflecting local usage. With patients who'd understand it (e.g. those with a history of abdominal problems) she'd use "abdomen". She might also sometimes use "stomach", despite the clash with its anatomical meaning.

    For the umbilicus, she'd use "tummy-button".

    As for other anatomical terms, such as the plethora of alternatives to the locally-common "front bottom", she says it's best not to go there.

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  35. UK (south coast). I'd be very surprised if my GP used the word "belly." I too assumed it was more used by Americans; also it sounds childish. I'd expect her to say "stomach" though I think one said "tummy" to me a while ago.

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  36. commenting from Portland, Oregon, USA... If a doctor asked to see my belly I'd presume s/he meant I looked overweight. I'd be insulted.

    P.S. We have a great new restaurant here called Belly!

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  37. I'm American--I live near Chicago--and I think my doctor would ask to look at my "tummy". I don't think she would say "stomach" since it's incorrect, and "belly" has kind of a negative connotation, doesn't it? It implies that you're fat.
    She might also say "abdomen" but certainly not as often.

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  38. My father-in-law used to refer to his daughter's navel as her naval base, until one day she went to school and called it that, to the scornful laughter of the whole class.

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  39. I've heard both 'belly button' and 'tummy button', and have also heard doctors refer to my 'tummy' but never 'belly'. (BrE, 23)

    I'm a bellydancer by trade, and although I hadn't realised it, I do use the two terms differently depending on who my students are. When I teach middle-aged mums, most of whom do have a bit of a paunch, I usually refer to their 'belly' when explaining moves. I think it's part of the informal atmosphere that I try to create, plus the first lesson will have usually been about how curves and wobbly bits are celebrated in bellydance! However, when I teach university students, who are often slimmer or at least more worried about what they look like, I always use 'stomach' and never 'belly', except in the term 'bellydancing' (although we prefer 'oriental dance' in any case!). That said, for all students, I will refer to 'abdominal muscles' when talking about specific areas of the abdomen, ie upper or lower.

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  40. As an American speaker, both belly and tummy sound quite informal. A doctor would certainly ask to see my abdomen or (more probable) my midsection.

    At least to my ears, the belly is the external portion of the midsection while the tummy is the internal. I would say "an upset tummy" to mean nausea and likewise use the phrase "beer belly." A belly can either refer to a paunch or to a woman's midsection during pregnancy (hence the maternity-wear store called "Belly").

    I'm not sure if it's just me, but when referring to a paunch, "belly" has kind of a feminine ring to it while the masculine variant is "gut."

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  41. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  42. I'm British in America, and I have a tummy-button. "Belly" was very much offensive slang when I was growing up in England's East Midlands!

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  43. When I was working as a GP in London, I varied between tummy and abdomen depending on how likely I thought the patient before me would be to understand.

    The best thing is to mirror the patient's own vocabulary if possible.

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  44. Interesting how downstate NY has more in common with the Pacific northwest than upstate NY.

    In my opinion, "belly" is the standard colloquialism (if that's not an oxymoron) for "abdomen". "Tummy" is the child-speak alternative, in most cases.

    The fat-related meaning (or "paunch", as you say) is not inherent, but can be inferred from certain contexts (without having to use a modifier).

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  45. I was born in Michigan, grew up in Wisconsin, lived 13 years in California after high school, and am now in Minnesota, and my gut reaction (pun not intended) is that if my doctor asked me to show him/her my "belly" or "tummy", I'd wonder where s/he got off, being so condescending to an adult.

    "Stomach" may not be anatomically correct, but it at least sounds more "grown-up".

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  46. Born & raised in southern Ohio to dad from New Jersey & mom from northwest Germany (Emsland), now living in San Diego area, age 41. :-)

    I never learned to say tummy or belly; it was always stomach, except for belly button (2 words). For me now, belly implies a paunch.

    Regarding paunch, have you noticed Young People Today use the word pooch to mean the same thing?

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  47. Belly definately sounds round to me. When you are pregnant they like to say Belly so that does it for me.

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  48. Josh Parsons19 May, 2012 14:40

    I lived in Pennsylvania for almost 14 years of my life. I'm 15 now and I moved to Alabama not too long ago. But I've always said "tummy" except for a random phase i went through when i was 13.

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  49. American, St Louis MO, Belly mostly here, but tummy and stomach also.

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  50. The stomach is an internal organ whereas you can touch your belly or tummy. Belly and tummy are more often used for the diminutive/juvenile/prenatal uses or when one wants to sound cute. Middle, midsection, waistline are used for polite conversation with older ladies/fitness enthusiasts I've noticed. One wouldn't want to offend when speaking of parts we can SEE, would we??!!!! When we are being honest with each other we say we have a paunch, pooch, pot or pot belly, gut, spare tire, cooler (you know, where the six pack goes so it stays cold- in the cooler) (Actually, I am trying to make that one a thing. Feel free to use it ad nauseam.) I live inthe Foothills of SC

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  51. Pooch? I only know that as a colloquial term for a (pet) dog.

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  52. Hey... glad I found this interesting piece. Great work, by the way. I'm British, but currently I live in the Czech Republic teaching English as a foreign language. I like to explain everything in a logical way to my students, and this question has come up in the past. Now I have never thought that one might be BrE & one AE as I have heard and used both in my lifetime. The best way I could think to explain this is that "tummy" is what we use for (incorrectly) stomach (correctly: abdomen) when it would be what is considered "normal", and belly when it is, to be polite, slightly larger than normal. When I thought about the logic behind this, the criteria was based on some of the things you mentioned above. i.e; beer-belly, sayings such as "big belly", the infamous Jimmy five-bellies... Mike Myer's "Fat Bastard" saying "Get in ma belly!"... the word belly seems to be associated with something large & jingly... where as with all small children I've only heard "tummy" used, when ready about men's or women's fitness it is always "tummy"... (how many women's magazines have the slogan "Get the perfect bikini belly in four weeks!", for example? Or "Cindy Crawford shows off her trim belly"?)... there never seems to be the positive adjectives combined with the word "belly". And I have heard English Doctors use the term "tummy" many times, but never "belly".

    So yeah, I've always split it this way as it seems natural to me, and it's nice to read that someone else has the same understanding for a topic which has never really been explained :)

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AmE = American English
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OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)