What is this shit?

My latest column in the Malaysia Star is about the word “shit.” This paragraph is the key one:

[Shit] is, I believe, ready to be heard unbleeped (uncensored) on the government-regulated airwaves in America. It is also ready to be printed in mainstream periodicals without fear of outrage, without being remarked upon, or without being subjected to the institutional neutering by limp-spirited editors who, though they avow that they themselves see no problem with the word, claim that a vague mass of others would most certainly take offence.

 

While we’re doing a rundown of the common naughty words of slang, I think we’d be remiss in not banging out a few words about “shit”.

In the pages of Irish, British and Australian newspapers, “shit” is quoted out of the mouths of public figures without giggling or scandal (although the writers themselves will almost never use it in print on their own initiative).

American media, however, will only rarely use it, even in direct quotes.

You also will not hear the word “shit” on the publicly owned American airwaves, except by accident, and then there are occasionally government fines involved.

“Shit” is officially considered only slightly less offensive than the F-word (which is probably the third-most offensive word in North American English if you discount “taxes”). But unofficially, “shit” is ordinary.

Off the public airwaves and out of the newspapers, you’re quite likely to hear it out of the mouths of most adult Americans at one time or another.

It is often, as so many of the naughty words are, very sharply said when one is shocked, surprised, or otherwise suddenly affected. “Shit! The cat scared me!” Or “Holy shit! Did you see how fast that car was going?”

As the comedian Bill Cosby used to say in his stand-up routine, when something bad happens – like being hit by a car – first you say it, then you do it. “Oh, shit!” can fly out of your mouth so fast that you may not even be sure you said it.

It’s also a general expression, by comparison, of something or someone to excrement itself. “What is this shit?” you might say when you buy a television but instead find bricks in the box.

“I feel like shit” or “I feel shitty” is how you might say that you are not in the best of health. “Shit” can also be used as a kind of general-purpose, imprecise pronoun to refer to a bunch of things. Recently deceased comedian George Carlin had a superb routine summed up best by the line, “Other people’s stuff is shit, but your shit is stuff.”

“Get your shit together” is a way of saying, “Get your belongings prepared or packed and ready for what comes next” but metaphorically it can mean, “Start behaving responsibly” or “Stop acting like an idiot”.

“I won’t put up with his shit any more” means “I won’t allow him to treat me badly any longer”.

“Shit” rarely appears in the pages of the big-market daily newspapers like the New York Times, well-known for its fuddy-duddy (old-fashioned and prudish) editorial policies.

You will, however, find it in left-wing arts and music weeklies, in the pages of hip-hop and popular music magazines, and even in the rarified pages of some of the finer literature journals where not even a footnote is needed to justify its presence.

You’ll also hear it on broadcast media (such as cable television) whose content is not regulated by the government.

“Shit”, in short, is an ordinary word, completely common, and with only a faintly stronger aspect than “crap” or “manure.”

It is, I believe, ready to be heard unbleeped (uncensored) on the government-regulated airwaves in America. It is also ready to be printed in mainstream periodicals without fear of outrage, without being remarked upon, or without being subjected to the institutional neutering by limp-spirited editors who, though they avow that they themselves see no problem with the word, claim that a vague mass of others would most certainly take offence.

A final note: North Americans prefer the form “shit” over “shite”, which is far more common in Britain. The difference is a historical artifact of the forking of the English language: one fork went here, the other went there.

NOTE: A couple of corrections are overdue.

In October, I wrote that the meaning of “ass” as stupid person came about because “an ass is a taboo place on the body because that’s where we excrete our waste”.

While that is true, in part, it’s also true that “ass” meaning a donkey is just as old, and people have been compared unfavourably to the animal as far back as the written record goes.

So, it’s far more likely that the current negative meaning of “ass” was originally by comparison to a donkey – a refined, stubborn animal – but it’s also likely that there’s been reinforcement by the excretory region of the body, too.

Further back, in September, I wrote that “to flip a bitch” means to make a sudden left turn in a car. It doesn’t. It means to make a sudden U-turn in a car: one minute you’re going in one direction, then you suddenly do a 180-degree turn and go in exactly the opposite direction.

Posted December 3, 2008

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