Susie Dent’s Introduction to Swearing: The S-Word

Things are getting down and dirty as Susie’s guide to swearing heads to the latrine…

Susie Dent's Introduction to swearing: the s-word

Things are getting down and dirty as Susie’s guide to swearing heads to the latrine…

Shit happens, as most of us know too well. What you might not be so aware of, however, is that shit also happens to be one of the few swear words that are genuinely Old English. ‘One of those Anglo-Saxon words’ has become a bit of a euphemism for any of our strongest swears, and yet most are more recent, dating from the Middle Ages. Not so with ‘shit’, which from its earliest days, has meant the very same thing it does today: excrement.

Originally, that excrement belonged to cows, and was of the slightly runny kind. By the 14th century, it was being used of human waste. Since then, and probably inevitably, ‘shit’s’ potential has expanded to encompass all manner of unpleasant situations and personalities. In a poem of 1508, for example, we have the earliest record of the word’s use for an obnoxious individual, even if there is a begrudging admiration in the simple sentence ‘Thou art a Schit but wit’.

Miss Haslam, a former riding instructress, spreads shit over a field in Freston, Suffolk. She is training to be a Land Worker, in order to combat the shortage of male labour during World War II. (Photo: Nick Yapp)

By the 19th century, shit could refer to anything considered base or worthless. Even in the 1890s a wise woman was declaring that ‘The Government is a load of shit’. (This sense of worthlessness of unimportance filtered down to today’s use for personal belongings or circumstances, where it functions as the slightly smellier version of ‘stuff’ – ‘just let me get my shit together’). 

And in the sewer it has largely stayed. If you make a bad mistake you could find yourself ‘in the shit’. Any excuses and you’re ‘talking shit’, leading to a definite ‘shitter’ of a week. Equally, you might be a person who won’t ‘take any shit’, or, far worse, be a ‘shit-stirrer’, leading others either ‘shot to shit’ or up the famous ‘shit-creek without a paddle’.

An extraordinary c.1160 medieval map showing the complex managed passage of the monks’ water supplies across Christchurch Abbey, Canterbury.

Still, to make up for it all, you can go out at the weekend and get ‘shit-faced’, whereafter you might call in sick for work because, anyway, it ‘don’t mean shit’. 

Like so many of our swears, ‘shit’ has become a multi-tasker, taking on a host of other meanings. In the US military, ‘shit on shingles’ describes the wholly unappetising dish of chopped meat in gravy served on toast, while in prison shit can variously be food, tobacco, a weapon, a riot, or even a criminal themselves.

So much for the noun. The verb came later, in the 15th century, where it meant simply to ‘void excrement’. The idea of defiling someone or something with that excrement emerged at around the same time, and the earliest record of this is not for the faint-hearted: ‘I have schetun your mowth full of turdys’. 

The reflexive idea of ‘shitting oneself’ soon followed, as in a military ballad entitled ‘Wellington’s Laurels’: ‘the British came after so hot, The French s–t their breeches with quaking’. And it seems no living creature is exempt from such a predicament: a glossary of Lincolnshire dialect tells us that the common redshank was popularly known as a ‘shit your breetches’, before explaining rather puzzlingly that it is ‘so-called from the cry it makes’.

Some lovely latrines in the garderobe at Peveril Castle, Derbyshire.

As to ‘shit’s’ origins, and contrary to belief, it is not an acronym for ‘Ship High in Transit’, a story based on the supposed need to store manure high up when being transported in order to avoid explosions. This is of course utter shite. 

In fact, ‘shit’ began as it continued, with the Old English for poo, scitte. As such it featured in place names such as Lincolnshire’s Schitebroc (now Skidbrook), which literally and rather uncharmingly means, ‘shit-stream’, and in Warwickshire’s ‘Schetewellalley’, now wisely changed to Shutwell Farm.

Want more foul-mouthed indecency? You can find all of Susie Dent’s Introduction to Swearing here!

In the 1300s, a street in London seems to have been so full of human and animal excrement that is was dubbed ‘Shitstream Lane’ (it now goes by the slightly more respectable Sherbourn).

Even by the 1700s London had scarcely become much more fragrant, as one account of a city prison proves: ‘The mixtures of Scents that arose from Mundungus – Tobacco – Foul Sweaty Toes, Dirty Shirts, the S—t Tub, stinking Breaths and uncleanly Carcasses poisoned our nostrils worse than a Southwark ditch’.

A Hammam bathroom in Iran

But just when you think ‘shit’ is universally bad, it surprises you by having a sweet side. As an exclamation it can express frustration but also wonder, as in the elasticated ‘shiiiiitttttt man’.  It can also mean the very best: if you love something, especially great music, you can declare it to be ‘the shit’ (or its close siblings, the ‘shizzle’ and ‘shiznit’).

Which means that, rather like ‘bollocks’, ‘shit’ has seen a reversal of fortune, taking it from the backend of cows to the very pinnacle of excellence. Not that Donald Trump would see it that way: one Texas Senator popularized a new shit-sult by calling the then-President a ‘fascist, loofa-faced, shit-gibbon’ on Twitter (this was in fact the runner-up to an earlier description of him as a ‘tiny-fingered, Cheeto-faced, ferret-wearing shit-gibbon’).

Then again, the dictionary will tell you that anyone who ‘thinks their shit doesn’t stink’ always did have an unjustifiably high opinion of themselves.

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  • markyrog says:

    I read somewhere that it derived from the Old Norse: skitr. Hence, old folk up north say they have the skitters (diarrhoea), and to skit someone is to treat them like shit, but Old English uses sh, not sk, so skit became shit. True or not? I dont know. ?

  • mjkelly2112 says:

    Not to mention when smoking a joint….it can be ( if good quality) described as ” good shit man”.

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