The Intriguing Origins of Indelicate Words: Shit

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A lot of people think they know where shit comes from. (It's possible this whole article was devised just so I could write that opening sentence.) But the origins of the word "shit" have long been clouded by urban legend. Granted, the urban legend is a good one, and people can't resist a good story. The story goes that back in the 1800s, cow pies were collected from the prairie to be used as fuel on ships during long voyages -- because they weighed less than various forms of liquid fuel (many of which hadn't been discovered/invented yet, in the case of gasoline). Of course, if the patties got wet they not only weighed more, but the process of fermentation began, methane would build up below decks, and, eventually, BOOM! So to avoid the boxes of cow pies getting wet and exploding, they had to be kept high up on the ship, away from the lower holds. Thus, they were stamped SHIP HIGH IN TRANSIT, which was eventually just shortened to SHIT.

This is a great story. Unfortunately, it's not true. Snopes calls it a "sorry piece of codswallop" (a word which could itself use an etymological dissection), and cites the story's origins as a 2002 post on usenet discussion list rec.humor. No, our friend "shit" has been with us, in written form at least, since at least the 14th century, and is derived from Old English, which had the noun scite (meaning dung) and scitte (diarrhea) and bescitan, which now ranks among my favorite Old English words, if not among my favorite words generally, and means "to cover with excrement." Also, scholars are fairly certain that it was used by preliterate Germanic tribes in the time of the Roman empire, meaning that the word "shit" is, quite literally, barbaric.

Tune in next week when we take a close look at crap!

January 25, 2011 - 5:59am
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