Friday, May 28, 2004

That's some pretty nice shite right there...

I dunno about you, but I've always been fascinated by etymology, the evolution of words, their roots and changing meanings in popular culture. I'm particularly interested in popular traditional slang and/or "cuss" (which itself is an etymologization of "curse") words.

A few years ago I was all hot on the idea of actually writing a book about the common euphemisms of tradional 4-letter curse words that have been used in "polite conversation" in America over the past 200 years or so. I've always found it amusing how these "polite" variations, invented to provide alternative explicatives at a time when cursing was not only considered a sin, but was actually a punishable offense as well, exemplify our continuing compulsion to bend the rules.

"Dang" and "darn" for "DAMN"; "Heck" for "HELL"; "Shoot" for "SHIT," among others. It's really pretty funny when you think about it.

However my book ambition lost most of its steam when I started doing some research to find that there is SO much info out there on the Web, why would anyone want to pay for it? I may still do it at some point, but I'll need to come up with a better angle than doing it to poke fun at hypocritical "pious" culture.

At any rate, I thought I'd share a little of what other people have said about the etymology of perhaps the most functional cussword in popular language, the ever-popular, "shit."

Etymology Online defines it thusly:

shit (v.) - O.E. scitan, from P.Gmc. *skit-, from PIE *skheid- "split, divide, separate." Related to shed (v.) on the notion of "separation" from the body (cf. L. excrementum, from excernere "to separate"). The noun is O.E. scitte "purging;" sense of "excrement" dates from 1585, from the verb. Despite what you read in an e-mail, "shit" is not an acronym. Extensive slang usage; meaning "to lie" is from 1934; that of "to disrespect" is from 1903; used for "obnoxious person" since at least 1508. Shat is a humorous past tense form, not etymological, from 18c. Shit-faced "drunk" is 1960s student slang; shit list is from 1942.

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Nadia breaks down the apparently similar etymologies of "shit" and the word "nice":

Jack mentions randomly in a conversation some story Alexf had told him about the words 'nice' and 'shit' having a common root. My first response was "what, in proto-indo-european?"

This is interesting, so I investigate. It's easy to find a discussion on the word 'shit':

From Old English "schite" (and similar spellings), originally as a verb meaning to defecate. It's been traced as far back as the proto-Indo-European root "skei-," to cut, split, also responsible for "science," "omniscient," "conscience," and lots of other words. Defecation is a kind of separation: the material passed leaves one's body...


Next for 'nice':

"Nice" has had an interesting history. Deriving from the Latin nescius, "ignorant" (from nescire, "not to know"), it's meaning in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries commonly was "foolish" or "wanton." To refer to someone as a "nice person" was no compliment in Chaucer's day.


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And finally, an observant D. Ward of the The Library of Halexandria explains why "shit" is the most functional cuss word in our modern lexicon:

You can be shit faced, shit out of luck, or have shit for brains. With a little effort, you can get your shit together, find a place for your shit or decide to shit or get off the pot.

You can smoke shit, buy shit, sell shit, lose shit, find shit, forget shit, and tell others to eat shit and die.

Some people know their shit, while others can't tell the difference between shit and shineola.

There are lucky shits, dumb shits, crazy shits, and sweet shits.

There is bull shit, horse shit and chicken shit.

You can throw shit, sling shit, catch shit, shoot shit, or duck when shit hits the fan.

You can give a shit or serve shit on a shingle [the proverbial "SOS"].

You can find yourself in deep shit, or be happier than a pig in shit.

Some days are colder than shit, some days are hotter than shit, and some days are just plain shitty.

Some music sounds like shit, things can look like shit, and there are times when you feel like shit.

You can have too much shit, not enough shit, the right shit, the wrong shit or a lot of weird shit.

You can carry shit, have a mountain of shit, or find yourself up shit creek without a paddle.

Sometimes everything you touch turns to shit, and other times you fall in a bucket of shit and come out smelling like a rose.

When you stop to consider all the facts, this word is one of the basic building blocks of creation. For if nothing else, once you know your shit, you don't need to know anything else!

[1] Robert Hendrickson, The Facts of File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, Checkmark Books, 2000.

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Well, here's hoping everyone has a really I mean...Have a great Memorial Day weekend!
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