What is this shit?
In its oldest and most basic form, shit is either a noun meaning "faeces", or a verb meaning "to defecate". However, slang is a fast-paced and fickle aspect of language, and shit has been with us for a long time. Such a plethora of variations and mutations exist that the word now defies any single definition.
This writeup, then, is my attempt to set down some of the more pervasive usages of today's English speaking Western world. It can never hope to be a comprehensive listing, because new incarnations of shit are appearing all the time. Some fall by the wayside, others step forward to take their time in the blinding limelight of the vernacular.
Faeces. Dung. Stool. Scat, crap, crud, poo, bog, turd. Whatever you want to call it, it's that stuff that comes out of the anus, smells unpleasant, and for some reason seems extremely funny in childhood.
It's generally brown in colour, semisolid in consistency and is composed of matter ingested, but not digested. Due to the human inclination to regard basic bodily functions as somehow inherently vulgar, we now have a formidable array of uncouth terms to describe this substance, and the process of emitting it. And prime among them is the subject of this writeup itself - shit.
Etymologically, shit came to us via Middle English shitten, from Old English scítan. The variant shite (pronounced with a stronger 'sh' and a long 'i') probably pre-dates shit, and still enjoys common usage in the British Isles.
scítan is very likely related to the Old English sceadan, to separate. Think "schism", "schizophrenia" and so on. sceadan has much in common with the Latin scindere and the Greek schizein, both of which meant "to split". All of these words are believed to stem from the Indo-European root skei-, to split or cleave, itself an extension of sek-, to cut. Other modern words thought to share this illustrious origin include science, sheath, scissor, ski, nice and shiver.
Shit functions in a fairly ordinary way for an English noun. Usually, no distinct plural exists and "shit" suffices to describe any amount thereof. However, the less common pattern for discrete quantities is used when the speaker wishes to refer to individual stools -- "one shit", "two shits".
- Welcome to the zoo. Your first job will be to shovel shit out of the monkey cages.
- We'd better take one of these kangaroo shits back to the lab for analysis.
Conjugating for tense works just like "spit" or "sit"; shit, shitting, shits, shat, although the past tense "shit" is just as functional as shat. A common form is the compound verb "to take/have a shit". This can be modified for tense as well, as in "So there I was, having a shit ...", or "I should have taken a shit at the last petrol stop".
- All you ever do around here is eat, sleep and shit.
- Oh, hell, that bloody dog shat on the carpet again!
It's easy to see how a term for digestive waste product could, by a process of generalisation, come to mean anything of little or no worth. After all, shit is composed of those parts of ingested matter that the body deems worthless or unusable.
In this sense, to say that something is shit is to say it lacks quality, is insignificant, inferior, unsatisfactory, ineffective, invalid, unsuitable, irritating, or all of the above.
This is probably the most common way in which shit is used. The basic adjective is "shit", with "shitty" being basically interchangeable, depending on your local idiom. "Shitty" extends into the comparitive forms, "shittier" and "shittiest". Comparitive forms based on "shit" are not in use, and indeed "shitter" means not "more shit" (as you might quite logically infer), but "toilet" (that upon which one shits) or "anus" (that with which one shits).
Common extensions such as "shithouse", "shitful", "a pile/heap/load/(et cetera) of shit", carry the same meaning but are typically more emphatic.
Some variations are locked into specific phrasings and or contexts. For example, "shithead" and "shit-for-brains" can only be used to refer to a person or persons; the former asserts that the person is irritating, the latter that s/he is stupid. If something is "a shit", then it is annoying or dysfunctional, but if something is "a piece of shit", then it is of extremely low quality. If you "give someone shit", you could be giving them something worthless, but it is more likely to mean you are insulting them, often with the implication that you are trying to provoke a response. To "sling shit" is to hurl insults or aspersions, and a "shitslinger" is a person, especially a politician, who makes a habit of doing so. The ubiquitous "shit happens" is a self-sufficient statement of resignation to ill fortune. These sorts of restrictions can be subtly different from one locale to another, and are subject to very rapid change. Your mileage will vary.
- He's just talking shit.
- That poem has got to be the shittiest thing I've ever written.
- I don't think much of John Howard, but Simon Crean is nothing but a whiny little shitslinger
- Do you really think my hair looks good, or were you just giving me shit?
- The pasta was okay, but the coffee was shithouse.
- That piece of shit hasn't worked properly for years.
- Give me a break, I've had a really shitty day.
- He's been a grumpy little shit lately.
- I wonder if anybody makes shittier burgers than McDonalds?
This usage probably evolved from the worthlessness category as applied to a statement of fact, and is now used as a noun meaning any statement or position which is false, invalid, flawed, misleading or irrelevant. It is also an adjective descriptive of any such statement, and a verb, meaning to make the statement.
The subtlety of this usage is that different variations can indicate whether the person making the statement is aware of the falsehood or flaw. Since the distinction between making a deliberately misleading statement and making a mistake is so important, this is a very useful flexbility, albeit one which could easily perplex inexperienced users.
The adjective is used just as described under "Worthlessness", but the verb has a few peculiarities worth noting.
- While "shat" is a valid past tense meaning "defecated", it does not carry across into this category. The simple past tense "shit" works, but is awkward, and therefore rarely used. You are more likely to encounter the past continuous and past perfect continuous tenses; "was shitting" and "had been shitting".
- When transitive, prepositions are illegal. This is quite unusual in English -- for example, "Jim was talking to Bob" features the preposition "to", but "Jim was shitting Bob" has none. "Jim was shitting to Bob" is all wrong. I'd like to tell you why, but I honestly don't know. Whatever the reason, the lack of preposition clearly marks the usage as a "falsehood", and I'm grateful for any reduction in ambiguity.
The extended adjective "full of shit" is interesting. It indicates that the person making a particular statement is not qualified to do so. For example, you're at a dinner party and your friend Dave starts waxing verbose about the chardonnay. Since you know for a fact that Dave wouldn't know the difference between a grenache and a grapefruit juice, and he's being a bit of a wanker, you loudly proclaim "Dave, you are so full of shit!"
The phrase "no shit" can be used intoned as a question, and is an abbrieviated way of asking "You're not shitting me?", or in a rhetorical sense, simply a way of expressing astonishment or disbelief. The grand tradition of sarcasm has given us an inverse, which is spoken as a statement and means "Yes, obviously", or more simply, "Duh."
The verb form is likely to be used to indicate a good-natured falsehood, or one being used for humourous purposes. It is roughly akin to "kidding", albeit much more vulgar. Whereas the adjective is more likely to represent genuine scorn on the part of the first person.
- Nah, relax buddy, I was just shitting you.
- That newspaper article was total sensationalist shit.
- Does he really think we're going to believe his shit?
- Jeez BlakJak, this writeup is really full of shit.
- We've got to get it finished in the next hour, I shit you not!
This usage of shit has the same meaning as "things" or "stuff". It does not necessarily carry any negative connotations, and the presence of the word "shit" as a general noun placeholder allows for the construction of some truly obfuscated sentences.
- Quit fooling around with that shit.
- You'd better not mess your shit up with my shit.
- You know how that shit works. You do dumb shit!
- Shit! That shit is some bad shit.
The issue is further complicated by the inclusion of shit in the lexicon of illegal narcotics jargon. It can mean any kind of drug you wouldn't want the constabulary finding on your person. However, drug slang is highly location dependant, so one man's shit is another man's smack.
That's all there is to it. In the style of such celebrated expletives as "Fuck!", "Damn!", "Bugger!" and "Supercalifragilisticexpialadotius!" (just kidding), use is straightforward and satisfying. Yell it when you stub your toe. Mutter it under your breath when you make a silly mistake. Say it quickly and repeatedly when you're panicked. Use it in any way which suggests itself when you need to vent a little steam. Be creative, and enjoy yourself. This is of the utmost importance.
There are a number of conditions, and attitudes, which can be expressed using "shit". These are usually applied to people or anthropomorphised objects.
The first and most obvious is "the shits", as in "I've got the shits". Originally it meant diarrhea, and it can still be used in that way, but more frequently it means a bad mood, particular a tetchy or irritable kind of bad mood. And in yet another ambiguity, "shitty" can be used to mean the same thing.
Shit has been adapted in a great variety of ways to indicate a dire situation. "In the shit", "in deep shit", "up shit creek", "the shit hits the fan", and so on.
To "shit yourself" or "shit a brick" is to suddenly become afraid or nervous.
To "give a shit" indicates a level of interest, but the more common usage is the negative, to not give a shit. The phrase "I don't give a shit" has been heavily overused in recent years, so when you wish to tell someone that your interest is minimal, it's important to be inventive. "Here's 40 cents, go call someone who gives a shit" will surely get the point across, but be sure to experiment and create your own expressions.
To be "shitfaced" is to be very, very drunk. I'd rather not hazard any guesses as to the etymology of this delightful phrase.
A "shitfight" is a circumstance of general hostility and disarray -- "So, they blew me off, and then I sent them a nasty email, and then it just turned into a complete shitfight".
Two main usages are of interest here. The first is "a shitload", which indicates a very large quantity, and the second is "jackshit", which means either zero, or a quantity so small as to render the subject useless.
In some very specialised phrases, "shit" can designate quantity by itself, as in "you ain't got shit", literally "you haven't got anything". This is possibly a contraction of "you ain't even got shit", which makes a certain kind of sense, given the worthlessness definition of shit.
Well, humans certainly aren't the only creatures on the planet who shit. Being the clever wee beasties that we are, we have integrated the shit of various animals into our slang. Here are some of the more prominent instances.
Bullshit ties directly into the falsehood category, and can adapt to suit any of the three forms (noun, adjective or verb). Bullshit carries a strong implication of jest, and is rarely used to describe a statement with malicious intent.
"Bullshit!" is commonly used as an interjection, a useful single word response which, in two emphatic syllables, can indicate your mix of disbelief and disagreement.
Horseshit is very similar to bullshit, but without the verb form. The implication here is that the falsehood in question is clumsy, or otherwise obviously false.
Chickenshit is a derogatory adjective used specifically to describe a person who is cowardly.
Apeshit is a state of panic or frenzy, especially a sudden or violent one.
Ratshit means severely inebriated, or otherwise in a bad way. A person who is very ill could be described as ratshit, for example.
Pigshit is used in the phrase "as thick as pigshit", "thick" here being an abbreviation of "thick-skulled", meaning dull-witted.
- Jeff, that PowerPoint presentation was utter horseshit.
- You wouldn't be bullshitting me by any chance would you?
- Well, the fire alarm went off and then everybody just kinda went apeshit.
- This lamer was too chickenshit to go bungee jumping with me on the weekend.
- After I hit the pub on Friday night, I was so ratshit I couldn't make it up the stairs!
One of the most curious and potentially confusing forms is the adjective indicating superiority. It's roughly an inversion of the "worthlessness" category, and seems to have its origin in some kind of irony. It indicates that the subject compares favourably with other shit of a similar nature.
This variant uses the phrase "the Shit" as a kind of compound adjective. The particle "the" is absolutely crucial -- it is what distinguishes this from all the negatively oriented shit. It is very similar in meaning to "the best". Precisely what "the Shit" is superior to is left deliberately unstated, and should be obvious from context.
Use of "the Shit" is typically part of a forceful assertion, and is most commonly used when you anticipate that the audience will have a strong opinion either way regarding your claim.
Paying attention to the voice tone and body language of the speaker can help identify use of the superior case. He or she will typically be enthusiastic, and place a heavy increasing emphasis on the two words "the Shit", which will almost always occur at the end of a sentence, or distinct clause. If the statement is in writing, you have only the context and syntax to guide you.
Less common variations on this idea are "shit-hot" and "King Shit". If something is shit-hot, then it is highly effective, efficient or talented. The expression King Shit is very specialised; it is used to describe a person's misplaced and excessive high opinion of themselves.
- You've never used ViM? Dude, you're missing out, ViM is the Shit!
- My new boss is such a pain in the ass. He thinks he's King Shit, but he doesn't have a clue.
- Hey, I like your new wheels -- those cars are the Shit.
- These new AMD processors are shit-hot!
Note that in the third example, if we omit "the", we have those cars are shit, which would mean exactly the opposite of the original clause. Except if the speaker is using irony, and identifying that shit is entirely beyond the scope of this writeup.
May the Shit Be With You
I'd also like to extend a big "thank you" to those years I spent in High School
Useful feedback on this writeup received from the following fine individuals: