Maxim* was a garrulous Belarusian grad student who’d occasionally hang out in my department’s student lounge. He delighted in the idiosyncrasies of English, once rushing in to tell us that he had a student in his lab named Mike Hunt.
Near the holidays that year I brought in a platter of shortbread to share.
“These are shit!” Maxim declared, grinning after a big bite.
“These are shit!” he repeated. “Very tasty.”
“So… you like them?”
“Yes! They are shit!”
“If you like them, how are they shit?”
“That’s not right? Dave** said ‘shit’ means good things. I thought it means crap. Dave is wrong?”
“Oh…” I finally understood. “I think Dave was saying ‘the shit.’ Shit is bad. The shit is good.”
Maxim grinned and picked up another cookie. “The shit!”
Shit can mean many things, sometimes almost neutral (as a synonym for stuff, for example) but usually negative (as a synonym for feces). But by adding “the,” we get the one instance where shit has a positive connotation. Does that make it a contronym?
Contronyms, also called auto-antonyms, are words that can have contradictory meanings. A sanction, for example, can mean either an endorsement or a punishment, depending on context. Sometimes you can tell which meaning a contronym has based on subtle grammatical differences. Oversight refers to supervision or management when used as a mass noun, but add an article to make a count noun—an oversight or the oversight—and you’re talking about an error or lapse.
Shit, though, doesn’t exactly work that way. We can’t add any old article to shit to give it a positive sheen: a shit is still shit. The Oxford English Dictionary offers usage examples for “the shit” to mean “the very best; the acme of excellence” but doesn’t speculate on its origins. I would guess that having “shit” mean “stuff” made “the shit” a natural analogue of “the stuff,” as in “Yeah, that’s the stuff.”—the definite article on the mass noun giving an otherwise neutral word the sense of uniqueness or prestige.
Steven Pinker calls the “one of the most easily overlooked disambiguating words.” (The Sense of Style, p. 122) “The meaning of the is not easy to state…but it could not be a clearer marker of syntax…. The definite article can be omitted before many nouns, but the result can feel claustrophobic, as if noun phrases keep bumping into you without warning.” Although most of the time the presence or absence of the is a marker of register that doesn’t change the meaning of what follows, shit is a particularly interesting case, where adding the article can make a world of difference.
*Not his real name.
**His real name.