Shit Words

An Encyclopedia of Swearing: The Social History of Oaths, Profanity, Foul Language, and Ethnic Slurs in the English-Speaking World. Geoffrey Hughes. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2006.

It is a general feature in swearing that terms for excretion come to be used to express insult, annoyance, and contempt. The entry for psychology of swearing records some of Sigmund Freud’s insights into this correlation. Evidence abounds from other languages, in the form of French merde, German scheiss, and Italian stronzo. As a term of insult, both as a simple noun and in various compounded forms, shit has an extended and picturesque history from the medieval period, always male in reference. The likely explanation is that in earlier times shit was not an especially taboo term, nor was the verb to shite. In fact shit was a common term in Anglo-Saxon for diarrhea, as it still is in rural dialects, and in the vulgar expression “to have the shits.” In common with other “four-letter” words, shit was used in medieval medical texts, such as the Cirurgerie of Lanfrank (1363) and Guy de Chauliac (1425). Two common rural names for varieties of the heron are still the shitepoke and the shiterow.

However, from the medieval period onward it started to gain emotive force. As the accompanying semantic field shows,shit-breech is recorded as a personal nickname of a distinguished personage in the early thirteenth century; it was still flourishing as a term of abuse in a reference to “a scurvy, shit-breech lad” in 1675. In the Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy(1503), Kennedy calls Dunbar “A shit but wit” (496) using the term in the modern direct style for the first time. However, the citations in the Oxford English Dictionary show a hiatus between the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries in the general and the personal uses. It is significant that even Rochester (1647-1680), whose poems spectacularly flaunt all taboo sexual language, will use excrement and turd but writes that “My squeamish stomach … made me Purge and Spew” (“Tunbridge Wells: A Satyr,” 6-10).

Reflecting the word’s increasingly taboo quality, Dr. Johnson (1755) likewise included turd but excluded shit, as did Noah Webster after him (1828), while Jonathan Swift’s use of it in various satires, notably in the famous line concluding Cassinus and Peter (1731-1734): “Oh Celia, Celia, Celia, sh—” was clearly considered outrageous. The major contemporary novelists, even those like Daniel Defoe and Henry Fielding who wrote in a realistic style, tended to avoid the word. However, Captain Francis Grose has shitsack in his Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785) as an epithet for “a dastardly fellow: also a non-conformist.” The early field is set out below. Except when attributed otherwise, the quotations are from the Oxford English Dictionary.

The references to shit word and shitten carry significant sociolinguistic implications. The link between herdsmen and shit word (in the poem The Owl and the Nightingale, ca. 1250) clearly implies that such terms are low class, a point further discussed in cherles termes. The Chaucer reference (General Prologue, l. 504) is the only use of a four-letter word in that text, clearly as a condemnation of corrupt and venal clergy. The Chester Play, The Innocents (ca. 1500) has a similarly contemptuous reference to “a shitten-arsed shrew” (157). Gammer Gurton’s Needle (acted 1566) includes such new vituperative idioms as “Fie shitten knave” and “that dirty shitten lout.” Samuel Pepys records Edward Montagu, the Earl of Sandwich, recounting a current idiom but an old saying of his father’s, “that he that do get a wench with child and marry her afterwards is as if a man should shit in his hat and then clap it on his head” (October 7, 1660). Pepys also noted on April 6, 1665: “Sir G. Carteret … called Sir W. Batten in his discourse at the table … shitten foole, which vexed me.” Shitten continued to be used in English dialect to mean “paltry, mean, contemptible,” but has virtually died out. Of the rest, shit-sack still survives in the British variety, as shit house does in global English. However, the quotation from 1795 gives historical depth to the symbolic proximity between excretion and insult.

The major modern expansion of the term started in American English. Stuart Berg Flexner notes: “Also in wide use between the 1870s and 1890s were such seemingly modern terms as shit and bullshit meaning ‘nonsense, rubbish, lies’ (chickenshit and horseshit were first recorded in the 1930s)” (1976, 315). The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (1994-1997) anticipates these dates by a few years, citing a variety of quotations in letters by major authors such as Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, E.E. Cummings, and others. Bullshit has recently (2005) become the topic of a monograph. Part of the legacy of World War II were shit list for a blacklist of targeted or disliked people, and shit on a shingle for creamed chipped beef on toast. Hugh Rawson’s Dictionary of Invective (1991) lists some forty picturesque and amusing idioms, most of them of American provenance. The principal exclamation in the field is holy shit, recorded from the 1930s, while the more damning personal insults are the compounds shithead, shitface, shitheel, and dipshit.

As is common when particular terms start to become taboo, less specific relatives are drawn into the field. Shakespeare never uses shit, but has “Out! Dunghill! Darest thou brave a nobleman?” in King John IV iii 87, while a seventeenth-century commentator dismissed Paracelsus, the sixteenth-century Swiss physician, as “a walking dunghill (so corrupt and offensive his life).” From the late eighteenth century crap shifted from its earlier senses of “waste, rubbish, or residue” and started to mean excrement as well as “nonsense, lies, or rubbish” generally. One of the more amusing euphemisms, recorded ca. 1592, is Sir Reverence, allowing writers deliberately to confuse the title of respect with the excremental sense.

Usage varies widely in global varieties. The Australian National Dictionary lists shit-kicker (also found in American English) as an ironic term for an unskilled worker, recorded from 1969, and shit-catcher for knickerbockers. South African English has not made much of a contribution, since the Afrikaans equivalent kak is widely used, especially in the metaphorical sense of “rubbish.” Interestingly, in several varieties of pidgin English shit is so generalized that it has lost its taboo quality entirely. Usually spelled sit, it is widely used as a simple form to mean “residue,” so that sit belong faia (literally “shit from the fire”) is used for “ashes,” while the verb bulsitim (from “bullshit”) is used generally to mean “deceive.” It thus has no emotive quality in Pidgin. In all other varieties shit continues to thrive as a personal insult, and in contemporary usage it has greatly generalized to express exasperation, anger, surprise, frustration, disgust, and astonishment. According to the frequency rating of the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (2nd edition, 1995) it is one of the 2,000 most spoken words. Timothy Jay’s study Cursing in America showed a similarly high frequency among college students (1992, 143-51).

The OED entry for shit carried the usage label: “Not now in decent use.” This is still true, inasmuch as it would be offensive in public, professional, or political discourse. However, the term and its affiliates have shaken off the taboos of previous centuries and are now common in global English in general speech, in literature, film, and television.