It began when I called someone a dipshit on Thanksgiving. (To be fair, the object of my displeasure–me– earned the sobriquet.) What a word, I mused: it must be a compound of the verb dip and shit, as if someone incompetent or stupid was so repugnant that they might as well be “dipped in shit.”
Alas for etymological fallacy: dipshit is not a compound created from the verb dip and the noun shit. It is, instead, a compound of the earlier noun dip, meaning “a stupid or incompetent person,” and the noun shit.
So who gives a fuck? I give said fuck. I had always assumed that dip was the bowdlerization of dipshit. Instead, it turns out that dipshit is an expansion and intensification of the earlier, tamer dip. It is expurgation turned ass over teakettle. Dip not strong enough for you? Just add –shit and stir.
The intensifying –shit isn’t a one-off found in dipshit; it also appears in apeshit (“wild, crazy”), chickenshit (“cowardly”), and bullshit (“foolish, empty talk”).
Bullshit is the earliest of our shitty words, first showing up in written English prose in 1914. Though the etymological bull in bullshit is likely the animal, there’s no doubt that bullshit was heavily influenced by another bull: a 17th century noun that referred first to a bad joke, then to a bad blunder, then to empty talk, and finally to errant nonsense. The “empty talk” sense of bull was in solid verbal use by the time bullshit showed up in print; at the very least, the intensified bullshit grew up with bull. But etymologists agree: bull is definitely not a shortening of bullshit.
Chickenshit has a forked line of derivation. The noun chicken has been used of a coward since Shakespeare, and was used attributively for quite a while. The adjective chickenshit made its written debut in 1945 and the noun in 1947. The glories of chickenshit owe everything to the complexity of chicken: chicken didn’t just refer to a coward, but also to a timid or meek person, someone who was afraid to try something new or do something out of line. This excerpt from a 1945 issue of American Speech explains, “A person is ‘chicken’ when he abides too closely by army rules and regulations, or when he misuses or abuses authority, especially in minor or petty matters.” Accordingly, the earliest meanings of both the adjective and noun chickenshit had to do with minuteness, pettiness, and insignificance. The “coward” sense of both chickenshits developed almost simultaneously, and while both showed up in written prose immediately after World War II, there’s no doubt that they were in use well before. The –shit here is not merely an intensifier, but also a humiliator. You are not just a filthy, brainless bird, obsessed with birdseed and bugs, and ready to cluck off at the slightest provocation, you are worse than that: you are that idiot bird’s shit.
Apeshit is our latest addition, first used in written English prose in 1951. It is mostly commonly used with go and it began, appropriately, as military slang. (God bless those soldiers, they know how to fucking swear.) Go apeshit came into being roughly the same time that the milder go ape did, but both phrases have developed slightly different connotations over the years: go ape tends to imply a happy, usually harmless frenzy, whereas go apeshit almost always refers to violent or other ill-mannered explosions. Compare:
The day after the brawl Edmundo went ape. To celebrate the first birthday of his son, Junior, he hired an entire circus for the day. (Sports Illustrated, 18 Oct. 1999)
“It’s Clete Purcel. He went apeshit in Calucci’s and ran one guy all the way through the glass window. The guy’s still lying in the flower bed.” (James Lee Burke, Dixie City Jam, 1994)
There are more words hauling the intensifying –shit behind them; Green’s Dictionary of Slang includes delights like bugshit, diddly-shit, and jack shit, as in “you don’t know ~.” (My co-contributor Mark Peters has mentioned a few other affixal –shits in his post on frogshit.) It is a comfort to know that there are wordsmiths out there interested not so much in the neutering of shitty compounds, but in the abundant creation of them. There’s plenty of –shit to go around.