Is shit a contronym?

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.

“Uh… sorry?”

“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.

18 thoughts on “Is shit a contronym?

  1. Hugo December 16, 2014 / 9:43 pm

    Similarly, compare:

    * It’s bollocks!

    * It’s the bollocks!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. schrisomalis December 16, 2014 / 9:50 pm

    All very true. But also note the enormous contrast between
    (1) I couldn’t give a shit.
    (2) I couldn’t take a shit.

    Or, similarly:
    (3) Are you taking the piss?
    (4) Are you taking a piss?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. seajay23 December 16, 2014 / 10:31 pm

    Hot gives shit a positive twist;
    He thinks he’s hot-shit
    That stuff was shit-hot.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Anne Brennan December 17, 2014 / 1:03 am

    Oh, dear. I thought I was a champeen cusser (truly my father’s daughter, but I didn’t know about this term. Thank you, Iva, for educating me . . . yet again. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Anne Brennan December 17, 2014 / 1:04 am

    Crap. There should be a closing parenthesis after “daughter.” At least I know about crap.

    Like

  6. Hugh Janus December 17, 2014 / 2:08 pm

    In my own idiolect, the phrase “no shit” can express surprise upon learning some unexpected new information or (especially when preceding “Sherlock”) dismissal of a statement that is considered blindingly obvious.

    I had previously used the term “Janus word” (after the Roman god usually depicted with two heads looking in opposite directions) for these. Wikipedia has a good list of (non-profane) words in this category: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Auto-antonym

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Jussi Piitulainen December 19, 2014 / 9:29 am

    @sesquiotic The front person of a group of musicians, introducing the members of the group towards the end of a performance, told the audience how the young guitarist came to join the band. The kid had turned up with a guitar. “Shit” (short, not at all enthusiastic). The kid had played for the group. “Shiiiiiiit” (looong, slow, appreciative). The story was longer, but these two were key words.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. John Cowan December 25, 2014 / 3:13 am

    Note also the difference between a bomb and the ~ da bomb; the former is itself contronymic, since bombing is one thing, doing a bomb something else again.

    Like

  9. richardsexton January 2, 2015 / 10:30 am

    Great piece, Iva!

    I noticed that adding “the” still reads as negative when talking about being in a place or in a state of mind. I’m thinking of soldiers in war movies talking about being “in the shit” or the kid in Boyhood who greets the new kid in class with “Welcome to the shit.” There’s a strong whiff of allusion in the latter example and of metonymy in the first. The soldiers seem to be using “the shit” as a stand-in for “the trenches,” but it works for any filthy place.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. richardsexton January 2, 2015 / 7:16 pm

    I must have misquoted above. It’s gotta be “welcome to the suck” not “welcome to the shit.” It’s a Marine Corps saying that probably originated during the Iraq War. Also Embrace the Suck.

    I’ve often wondered why the word “suck” has such a vulgar sting to it even though it is so commonly used in non-vulgar contexts. Is it because it sounds like “fuck?”

    I remember us French immersion kids driving our teachers mad using the clumsy translation of “ça suce” for “that sucks.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • j0egreen January 4, 2015 / 4:46 am

      “Suck” is vulgar because it’s an allusion to fellatio.

      Like

    • Ben Zimmer January 4, 2015 / 9:12 pm

      I wrote about “the shit” and “the suck” (as in “welcome to the suck” and “embrace the suck”) on Slate here.

      Like

      • richardsexton January 5, 2015 / 2:09 am

        Ben, your article answered a lot of the questions I had about “the suck.” I like the way Anthony Swafford captures both the sucking of “dicks” and of sucking “life” itself when you quote him. I still find it funny that the latter sense–more about pain then pleasure–is considered the least offensive of the two.

        Your description of the online use of “the suck” reminded me of a Mac app called BBEdit whose slogan is “It doesn’t suck. ®” They even registered the trademark!

        Like

  11. sesquiotic February 4, 2015 / 10:41 pm

    “It’s the shit” is good, but “It’s the shits” is bad. Unspecified mass noun is in this case equivalent to specified countable plural.

    But wait, there’s more! “It’s a shit” is normally open only to literal interpretation. (“He’s a shit” is a different thing again.) I’m not even sure about “It’s shits.”

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Stan Carey February 27, 2015 / 11:56 am

    A panel in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Strikes Again points to the potential for misanalysing ‘the shit’:

    Liked by 1 person

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