In this edition of Foul-Mouth Friday, we’re moving from the bedroom to the bathroom to take a look at a word that is vulgar not only in its usage but in its very definition: shi—excuse me, the s-word.
To help us better understand this, erm, indecent word, we’re also going to look at some examples of its usage in Kevin Smith’s View Askew film series.
But first, a load of shit to address:
Contrary to popular belief, shit did not start as an acronym for “ship high in transit.” According to this urban legend, ships carrying loads of fertilizer and cow manure to burn in place of wood would become highly susceptible to explosion due to the weight of and methane gas given off by its cargo. One could always tell when one of these “ships high in transit” were coming as a rather nasty stench would fill the air, so when a “s.h.i.t.” did come, one would comment on the accompanying stench by exclaiming, “smells like shit!” This urban legend is exactly what its name implies: a legend. There is absolutely no verifiable record of this acronym being used before 2002, when the urban legend first appeared on the internet. Furthermore, the use of acronyms did not become popular until World War I (1914-1918), and the textual use of shit can be traced back to the 1300s.
A truly scitol beginning:
The true roots of shit (or shite, as our British readers might say) lie in the Old English verb, scítan, which means “to defecate [or] shit.” It inspired a slew of other words, including scitte (a noun that means “purging, shit, diarrhea, [or] looseness of the bowels”), scitol (an adjective that means “purgative”), and bescítan (a verb that means “to befoul”). Closely related to scítan is the High German word scízan, which is the grandfather of the Modern German verb scheiβen (“to shit”).
Sadly, neither scítan nor any of its variants appear in any Old English text. It wasn’t until the early 1300s, about two hundred years after Old English’s evolution into Middle English, that a verb variant, schite, appeared in an untitled manuscript as well as a reworded copy of the same manuscript, entitled Heil Saint Michel:
“Hail be ȝe, skinners, wiþ ȝure drenche kiue! Who so smilliþ þerto, wo is him aliue, Whan þat hit þonneriþ, ȝe mote þer in schite.”A noun variant first appeared in print in Walter Kennedy’s 1508 poem "The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedie" (as part of a not-too-well-liked person’s epitaph, no less):
(“Hail be you, skinners, with your tanner’s vats! Who so sniffs at it, woe is him alive, When it thunders, you must shit in there.”)
“A schit, but wit.”The first textual appearance of shit’s modern noun form came in 1585, when Sir Patrick Hume of Polwarth published the poem "Flyting With Montgomerie":
“Fond flytter, shit shytter.”And the first textual use of the interjection form appeared less than a hundred years ago in 1920, when we English majors’ good friend James Joyce penned a letter to one of his friends:
“O shite and onions! When is this bloody state of affairs going to end?”
Nouns and shit:
First and foremost, shit as a noun is a vulgar synonym for “defecation,” “excrement,” “feces,” or plain-old “poop.”
Here's a rather graphic example from Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, when Jay outlines their plan to reap revenge upon the studio that is making a movie about him and Silent Bob:
“We're gonna make them eat our shit, then shit out our shit, and then eat their shit that's made up of our shit that we made 'em eat!”But perhaps because of its vulgarity, the noun shit has come to act as a synonym for “anything thought of as being bad, disgusting, foolish, worthless,” or nonsensical (basically anything thought of as having the quality of shit). It can even act as a vulgar synonym for the vague “stuff.”
An example of the former, found in Clerks:
Veronica: “Don't you have a hockey game at two?”And an example of the latter, found in Mallrats and said by Jay:
Dante: “Yes! And I'm going to play like shit because I didn't get a good night's sleep!”
“Silent Bob here's an electrical genius. He won the science fair in eighth grade by turning his mom's vibrator into a CD player using some chicken wire and shit.”Its loose usage for anything unpleasant (or anything in general, really) has inspired a vast range of slang expressions. However, due to the sheer number thereof, we'll cover only four of these: a piece of shit, to get one's shit together, not to give a shit, and to beat the shit out of someone.
A piece of shit is simply an embodied portion of “anything thought of as being bad, disgusting, foolish, [or] worthless.” In Dogma, the muse Serendipity asserts that the film Home Alone (an embodied portion) is bad and worthless:
Serendipity: “I'm responsible for nineteen of the twenty top-grossing films of all time.”To get one’s shit together means “to become organized or have one’s affairs in order.” In Clerks 2, the eternally indecisive Dante believes he’s finally become organized and is ready to move to the next stage of his life when he is arrested, thanks to his friend Randal:
Serendipity: “Yeah, the one about the kid, by himself in his house, burglars trying to get in and he fights them off? I had nothing to do with that one. Somebody sold their soul to Satan to get the grosses up on that piece of shit.”
“I can't believe you! I finally get my shit together; I'm hours from getting outta here and really starting my life; and you somehow figure out a way to obliterate all that and reduce me to a convict!”Not to give a shit means “not to care at all.” In Dogma, Jay tells Bethany that movie critic Roger Ebert doesn’t care at all about what Jay believes to be the true cornerstones of fine film-making:
Bethany: “May I ask what brought you here?”To beat the shit out of someone means “to give [someone] a severe beating." In Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, Banky tells Jay that he (Jay) can’t do anything about people talking about him on the internet short of going to all of their houses and giving them a severe beating:
Jay: “Some fuck named John Hughes.”
Bethany: “Sixteen Candles John Hughes?”
Jay: “You know that guy, too? That fuckin' guy. He made this flick, Sixteen Candles. Not bad—there's tits in it, but no bush. But Ebert over here don't give a shit about that kind of thing, 'cause he's like, all in love with this John Hughes guy.”
“What've I been telling you? There's not much you can do to stop that. Well, short of showing up at all their houses and beating the shit out of them, I guess.”Other popular expressions include to not be worth a shit (to be "useless [or] valueless"), to shit on someone or something (to show contempt towards someone or something), and when the shit hits the fan (when a crisis has reached its climax).
The noun shit is also the root word of and inspiration behind many a nasty address, such as shithead, shitstain, and shit-for-brains.
An example from Mallrats:
T.S.: “What's [Silent Bob] doing?”
Jay: “Shithead here watched Empire and Jedi last week, and ever since then, he's been trying to do the Jedi mind trick. The crazy fuck thinks he can levitate shit with his thoughts.”
Just as its noun counterpart is a vulgar synonym for “excrement” or “defecation,” shit as a verb is a vulgar synonym meaning “to discharge excrement,” “to defecate,” or “to poop.”
An example from Clerks:
Dante: “My mother told me once that when I was three, my potty lid was closed, and instead of lifting it, I chose to shit my pants.”Thus far, this form of shit has inspired only one slang expression: to shit someone, or “to tease or try to fool” someone.
Randal: “Lovely story.”
Dante: “Point is, I'm not the kind of person that disrupts things in order to shit comfortably.”
Another example from Clerks, when an anti-smoking activist shows a smoker a (rather graphic) model of a smoker’s lung:
customer: “What the hell is that?”
activist: “That's your lung. By this time, your lung looks like this.”
customer: “You're shittin' me.”
Shit’s sole adjective, shitty, is derived from the slang usage of its noun and verb counterparts and describes any noun to which it is attached as having the quality of shit (“bad, disgusting, foolish,” etc.).
Yet another example from Clerks, when Randal states that he wants to go rent a movie:
Dante: “You work in a video store!”
Randal: “I work in a shitty video store. I want to go to a good video store so I can rent a good movie.”
Although not yet recognized by our good friends at Oxford and Webster’s as a word in the English language, many an English speaker has used shit’s adverb counterpart, shittily, to describe the shit-like quality of a particular action or description.
Unfortunately, Kevin Smith did not include a single utterance of shittily in any of his View Askew movies, so we cannot look at any quoted examples thereof. Instead, we’ll look at one-sentence summaries of two respective plot points from Clerks and Clerks 2:
Dante handled the news of Caitlin’s engagement shittily. (That is, he didn’t handle it well.)
Randal thinks that the Lord of the Rings film series was shittily done. (That is, he found it poorly done.)
Oh shit! Interjections!
The final form of shit is the interjection form, which, when used, expresses the speaker’s extreme emotional state. Shit can stand alone in this form, or it can be accompanied by another word (Holy shit!, Oh shit!, Fucking shit!, etc.) or a set of words to form an incomplete phrase (Shit on a stick!, etc.).
An example from Mallrats:
Brodie: “Holy shit! Aren't you…?”
Stan Lee: “Oh, Stan Lee, hi.”
More dren to consider:
While shit is a fairly universal word, certain franchises (usually Prime time television shows that are not allowed to use the stronger curse words) and their fandoms have their own substitutes for the dreaded s-word.
For example, "Farscape" uses dren:
"Oh great, yeah, we have to put with this dren again."The original "Battlestar Galactica" uses felgercarb:
"What a load of felgercarb!"And crap is a popular substitute in multiple fandoms and in real life:
"Cut the crap already!"It comes down to knowing the franchise. Once you know the franchise for which you're writing, you'll know which substitute to use or if you should use a substitute at all.
The Webster’s New World Dictionary, Third College Edition (1994)
The Battlestar and Farscape Wikipedias