When “shit” hits the newspapers

In 1945 (in The American Language: Supplement 1), H.L. Mencken decried “the extraordinary prudishness of the American newspapers, which always hesitate to report genuine profanity in full, or even any harmless discourse quoting its more familiar terms.” While things have loosened up a bit in the seven decades since Mencken registered his complaint, there are still certain four-letter words that are considered off-limits for most American papers, including shit.

The New York Times famously made an exception to the no-shit rule in 1974 when it transcribed a line from Nixon’s Watergate tapes, “I don’t give a shit what happens.” Times editor Abe Rosenthal was quoted at the time as saying “We’ll only take shit from the President,” an edict that again came into play in 2006 when a live microphone caught George W. Bush dropping an S-bomb. There have been a few other shit sightings in the Times since then, though the so-called Obama Doctrine of “Don’t do stupid shit” has been decorously bowdlerized as “Don’t do stupid stuff.”

Beyond the Timesshit has worked its way into some U.S. newspapers since the relaxation of linguistic taboos in the late ’60s. Countercultural publications led the way, as with The Realist and its 1966 shit-in, or The Village Voice reporting on hippie activists in 1967. By the ’70s and ’80s more mainstream papers were joining in, too, and not just when quoting the president.

But before all that, in the era of “extraordinary prudishness” to which Mencken referred, shit typically would only make it into the newspaper thanks to some sort of typesetting shenanigans. Here I’ve collected some of the accidental/prankish shits that have come to light in searches of digitized databases.

It’s not easy going on a shit hunt in historical newspaper databases, since optical character recognition (OCR) on poorly scanned images guarantees that the vast majority of search results will be false matches for similar words like shirt, shift, suit, ship, and shot. It’s easier to search for a compound like bullshit (or the two-word bull shit), though even that can end up being a false positive matching bulletinballs hit, and the like.

In her post on affixal -shit, Kory Stamper gives 1914 as a first-citation date for bullshit, presumably from Ezra Pound’s letter to James Joyce (“Dear Joyce: I enclose a prize sample of bull shit”). There’s also a T.S. Eliot poem called “The Triumph of Bullshit” that may date to 1910 (see here and here for more).

But there’s a chance that bullshit can actually be found in an American newspaper a few decades before that — as Jonathan Lighter noted on ADS-L (the American Dialect Society listserv), Doc Holliday: the Life and Legend by Gary L. Roberts mentions a stage-robber near Las Vegas, N.M., known as John “Bull Shit Jack” Pierce. Roberts appears to cite the July 20, 1881 issue of The Las Vegas Daily Optic, but I haven’t seen the article in question to verify if “Bull Shit Jack” actually appears there. [Update, 8/17/17: For the latest on this, see my post, “The Curious Case of Bull Shit Jack.”]

Another ADS-L contributor, Bonnie Taylor-Blake, came across a peculiar appearance of bullshit from 1886 in a Kansas newspaper:

The total cost of the pavement runs from $1 80 to $2 50 per square yard, according to the bullshit of sand.
The Daily Commonwealth (Topeka, Kan.), Aug. 31, 1886, p. 5

As “the bullshit of sand” makes no sense, Doug Wilson suggests that bullshit here is a (possibly intentional) typo for ballast. A mischievous typesetter could very well be to blame for this.

I detect a more subtle form of mischief in this 1903 Denver Post headline:

Bulls Hit At Close
“Bulls Hit At Close,” The Denver Post, Aug. 18, 1903, p. 13

Of course, it could just be a coincidence, in an article about stock market “bulls” reaping profits at the close of trading, but I imagine the creator of the headline must have taken special glee in making the first deck read “bulls hit.”

Here’s an even more remarkable headline, from The Kalamazoo Gazette in 1906:

Captain, Crew and a Scene on Board the Dynamite Shit.
“Captain, Crew and a Scene on Board the Dynamite Shit,” The Kalamazoo Gazette, Aug. 4, 1906, p. 2

Turning “the dynamite ship” into “the dynamite shit” is a typo of the highest order. It’s not like p and t were close on the Linotype keyboard, though the phonological similarity could be to blame. That Kalamazoo typesetter shouldn’t feel too bad, because the very same typo appeared a decade later in San Jose’s Evening News:

"Austrian Construction Engineer Reported on Roanoake Perished When Shit Went Down
“Austrian Construction Engineer Reported on Roanoke Perished When Shit Went Down,” 
The Evening News (San Jose, Cal.), May 18, 1916, p. 8

I’ll chalk this one up to an unintentional slip, though it’s tempting to read the headline as a morbid joke playing on the modern understanding of “shit going down.” (Go down in the sense of “happen” is dated to 1946 by OED and the slang dictionaries.)

The next example is another early appearance of bullshit discovered by Bonnie Taylor-Blake and shared on ADS-L. A 1916 advertisement for a florist in The Charlotte News has some text that has been overwritten with a terse “Bull Shit”:

The Charlotte News, Mar. 2, 1916, p. 2

Bonnie found the ad in other editions with no overlaid “Bull Shit.” (The first line is supposed to read “the season’s choicest flowers and plants can always be found.”) Doug Wilson’s theory that this is “a practical joke, or sabotage by a disgruntled typesetter” seems reasonable.

And finally, here’s a lovely example of filler text that I found in a 1920 issue of The Wyoming State Tribune:

The Wyoming State Tribune, Dec. 24, 1920, p. 3

Rather than etaoin shrdlu or something else innocuous, the text filling out the column reads as follows:

xzfiflffBull shit Jocko now is the
Now  Jack  you  are  wull  of  sit
you  are  cmuck  full  f  the  shit

While etaoin shrdlu represents the first two columns of keys on a Linotype machine, xzfiflff (with those f-ligatures) is from the fifth column. But after running his finger down those keys, the typesetter got pretty creative. Thank goodness that moment of vulgar typography has been captured for posterity.

11 thoughts on “When “shit” hits the newspapers

  1. gilda92 January 2, 2015 / 3:01 pm

    I assume you know of the website and cookbook “Thug Kitchen”?


  2. Chips January 2, 2015 / 8:42 pm

    And talking of politicians and shit (which at times may well be viewed as synonymous), back in 2011 as Leader of the Opposition in Australia, current Prime Minister Tony Abbott was widely broadcast as saying “shit happens” in response to an Australian soldier being killed in Afghanistan. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9wT9XS_TvzQ. Veterans’ groups were not impressed


  3. Will January 4, 2015 / 12:06 am

    I know your topic is strong language, not innuendo, but don’t you think someone was having fun with the ad in your final illustration? Smith Brothers–put one in your mouth at bedtime?


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