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 Times, shit 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 bulletin, balls 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 21, 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.
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:
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:
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:
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”:
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.
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.