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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!

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Animals
25 Benefits of Adopting a Rescue Dog
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According to the ASPCA, 3.3 million dogs enter shelters each year in the United States. Although that number has gone down since 2011 (from 3.9 million) there are still millions of dogs waiting in shelters for a forever home. October is Adopt a Shelter Dog Month; here are 25 benefits of adopting a shelter dog.

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fun
How Urban Legends Like 'The Licked Hand' Are Born
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If you compare the scary stories you heard as a kid with those of your friends—even those who grew up across the country from you—you’ll probably hear some familiar tales. Maybe you tried to summon Bloody Mary by chanting her name in front of the mirror three times in a dark bathroom. Maybe you learned never to wonder what’s under a woman’s neck ribbon. Maybe you heard the one about the girl who feels her dog lick her hand in the middle of the night, only to wake up to find him hanging dead from the shower nozzle, the words “humans can lick too” written on the wall in the dog’s blood.

These ubiquitous, spooky folk tales exist everywhere, and a lot of them take surprisingly similar forms. How does a single story like the one often called “Humans Can Lick Too” or "The Licked Hand" make its way into every slumber party in America? Thrillist recently investigated the question with a few experts, finding that most of these stories have very deep roots.

In the case of The Licked Hand, its origins go back more than a century. In the 1990s, Snopes found that a similar motif dates back to an Englishman’s diary entry from 1871. In it, the diary keeper, Dearman Birchall, retold a story he heard at a party of a man whose wife woke him up in the middle of the night, urging him to go investigate what sounded like burglars in their home. He told his wife that it was only the dog, reaching out his hand. He felt the dog lick his hand … but in the morning, all his valuables were gone: He had clearly been robbed.

A similar theme shows up in the short story “The Diary of Mr. Poynter,” published in 1919 by M.R. James. In it, a character dozes off in an armchair, and thinks that he is petting his dog. It turns out, it’s some kind of hairy human figure that he flees from. The story seems to have evolved from there into its presently popular form, picking up steam in the 1960s. As with any folk tale, its exact form changes depending on the teller: sometimes the main character is an old lady, other times it’s a young girl.

You’ll probably hear these stories in the context of happening to a “friend of a friend,” making you more likely to believe the tale. It practically happened to someone you know! Kind of! The setting, too, is probably somewhere nearby. It might be in your neighborhood, or down by the local railroad tracks.

Thrillist spoke to Dr. Joseph Stubbersfield, a researcher in the UK who studies urban legends, who says the kind of stories that spread widely contain both social information and emotional resonance. Meaning they contain a message—you never know who’s lurking in your house—and are evocative.

If something is super scary or gross, you want to share it. Stories tend to warn against something: A study of English-language urban legends circulating online found that most warned listeners about the hazards of life (poisonous plants, dangerous animals, dangerous humans) rather than any kind of opportunities. We like to warn each other of the dangers that could be lurking around every corner, which makes sense considering our proven propensity to focus on and learn from negative information. And yes, that means telling each other to watch out for who’s licking our hands in the middle of the night.

Just something to keep in mind as you eagerly await Jezebel’s annual scary story contest.

[h/t Thrillist]

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