Word of the Week: Underbelly

TWO famous people have used the word underbelly in two different ways.

In 1942, the British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill, in a bid to secure victory in Europe, conceived of the idea to mount a European attack not by crossing the Channel, but by attacking Italy. The initiative made sense because Italy was, in his mind, Europe’s “soft underbelly.”

In 2000, Anthony Bourdain, author of the gripping culinary tell-all, Kitchen Confidential, made the word underbelly as famous as his food and travel exploits. How? Through a subtitle that’s as breathless and mysterious as its book title: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly.

In what way is Churchill’s underbelly different from Bourdain’s? Over to you, Oxford:

underbelly |ˈəndərˌbɛli|(n)
(plural: underbellies)

• an area vulnerable to attack: these multinationals have a soft underbelly.
• a hidden unpleasant or criminal part of society.

The first meaning fits the Churchill portrait of Italy, and mirrors the literal meaning of underbelly:

the soft underside or abdomen of an animal

The second meaning, as Bourdain intended, has a more interesting lineage. According to etymonline.com, an online etymology Web site, the word is “sometimes used erroneously or euphemistically in a sense of ‘seamy or sordid part’ of anything”—which are the very connotations that call to mind the seedy, suspicious, and dangerous world Bourdain had sought to capture.

Let’s visit Seattle for an even more colorful usage of the word underbelly—one that captures not just one meaning, but both, so that the literal meets the figurative.

Seattle Underbelly Exposed as Homeless Camp Violence Flares

In this reportage, imagine the Interstate 5 highway not so much as a magnificent viaduct, but a beast whose underbelly (soft underside or abdomen) is home to violence and thugs (criminal part of society), so that the homeless who reside under this highway, aka The Jungle, live in constant fear of being mugged (an area vulnerable to attack).


I invite you to write to me at  viv@mywritinghome.com if you have any word ideas you’d like to share.

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