O shite and onions! When is this bloody state of affairs going to end? (James Joyce, letter, 1920)
Just as different countries develop distinct dialects, so too do they produce their own conventions of swearing. Ireland has an enthusiastic culture of verbal irreverence, among whose characteristic features are the words feck and shite. Feck is a minced oath whose uses, meanings and origins I’ve explored on my own language blog, Sentence first. Shite is a slightly coarser swear, more at home here on Strong Language.
Shite is often but not always a direct variant of shit in the Hiberno-English profanilect.* It’s also used in Scotland, Australia, and other regional dialects, but my focus here is on usage in Ireland. All the main senses of shit are shared by shite. Like its global relative, shite commonly means nonsense, something rubbish or useless, or plain old excrement. We may talk shit or shite, be full of shit or shite, not give a shit or a shite, do a shit or a shite.
Tom didn’t realise what a nasty wee shite Jason has become. (Niamh Ní Bhaoill, Ros na Rún)
Shite carries a long history, intertwined somewhat with that of shit on account of the older phonetic forms of the latter. The Oxford English Dictionary, which has citations from Larkin, Enright, Hemingway, Amis, and (inevitably and repeatedly) Joyce, says shite:
probably result[ed] from the influence of forms of shit (v.) with a long vowel, although there could also have been an (unattested) inherited form in Old English with a long vowel (deriving from the e-grade of the same Germanic base); compare Middle Low German schīt, schīte faeces, filth, Middle High German schīze diarrhoea (German Scheiße faeces), Old Icelandic skítr faeces.
As the American Heritage Dictionary shows, the same root hides in plain sight in relatively innocuous words like shyster (from Old High German skīzzan ‘defecate’) and blatherskite (Middle English –skite ‘diarrhoea’, from Old Norse skītr ‘excrement’), but I’ll forgo further etymological detail for now. The OED finds shite occurring earliest regionally, mainly in Ireland and Scotland, and later in colloquial English ‘as a jocular or quasi-euphemistic variant of shit’. But the word was probably used in speech well before being committed to print.
Shite is generally more expressive to my ears and usually comes more naturally as an interjection. Shit has its place in my speech but can feel rather like an import on my western Irish tongue. I may use it to mean stuff (Whose is this shit?) or events/phenomena (That’s some crazy shit), and would not use shite in these contexts. But others have told me they would, so there’s personal variation. I’ve never heard anyone say No shite for No shit, so I’d guess it’s not idiomatic.
The New Corpus of Ireland has just nine hits for shite, but the genre/subgenre distributions are suggestive, if unsurprising:
Shite often functions as a standalone expletive to express irritation, regret, and other moderately negative states, quite often tempered by wry amusement or ironic detachment. It may be intensified or complemented by other swears: one member of my family resorts regularly to Fuckin’ shite! as an exclamation of annoyance or frustration, intensified to Fuckin’ bolloxin’ shite! when the need for more extreme expression arises.
Where shit and shite are semantically equivalent and syntactically available, shifting from one to the other can alter the flavour of the utterance. The diphthong in shite is an enduring echo of its millennium-old ancestor and Germanic cognates, but is rare in modern English-language swearwords. It gives shite a force and heft beyond the abrupt span of shit, whose closed vowel restricts its rhetorical effect. Beside the dynamic, open spread of /ʃaɪt/, /ʃɪt/ can feel bland and bleached by comparison.
Shite appears in a wide variety of compound nouns and phrases, some of them closed to shit. What follows is not meant to be exhaustive but will give an idea of what’s in use.
Gobshite is a popular term of abuse for a foolish or daft person (like eejit but sharper), or for a contemptible person, especially a self-satisfied, pretentious, and voluble one. Both senses are common. Gobshite scorns stupidity and subverts bluster without fuss or mercy, but like many Irish insults it can also be used to tease someone affectionately. The gob /ɡɒb/ is probably from Irish gob /ɡʌb/ ‘beak, mouth’.
Here’s an example of the word’s fool sense used in Father Ted:
It shows up (unbowdlerised) in news headlines too:
Shitehawk is a similar epithet said of a no-good or, again, contemptible person, usually a man. (Pigeons, seagulls, kites and other birds also suffer the term.) You could tell a shitehawk, human or avian, to go and shite (‘Go away’). The –hawk of shitehawk may be through analogy with gobhawk (from Irish gobachán). A search for shitehawk in Google Books shows examples of its use in print. I hear it used as a verb and gerund too: Quit your shitehawking (‘messing around’).
Shit-talk can mean trash-talk, i.e., put someone down (whether maliciously, jocularly, or competitively), but shite-talk, as a noun or intransitive verb, refers only to idle talk (We stayed up a while shite-talking) or nonsense (There’s no end of shite-talk out of her). A dry shite (less commonly dry balls) is a boring, anti-fun person.
Like shit, you can frighten the shite out of someone or kick the shite out of them, even seven shades of it. But if you know what’s good for you you won’t break your shite (from) laughing when your mother gives out shite to you. Break your shite… may derive from break/bust your hole (laughing), while in the second phrase shite intensifies the Irish idiom give out ‘scold; complain’: I gave out shite to him is synonymous with gave out stink or yards.
Finally there’s a curious reply of ironic dissent or contradiction that hinges on in/and one’s shite, usually preceded by the verb be or do. Thus: I am in me [my] shite, sometimes I am and shite, is an emphatic ‘I am not’; She did and (her) shite = ‘She did not.’ Other vulgarities can occupy the sweary slot in this construction, for example I will in me hole; we will in our bollocks. All signal how unthinkable a scenario is from the point of view of the person in question.
Lest you think I’m talking complete shite, here are a few examples of this phrase from published dialogue. From Brendan O’Carroll’s book Agnes Browne:
‘Tell Mr Richard I want him.’
‘What? I will in me shite!’
Stephen J. Martin, Rock and a Hard Place:
‘What?! She liked you!’
‘She did in her shite.’
Fred Kennedy, Three Storeys Up: Tales of Dublin Tenement Life:
‘I will in my shite go! Why don’t you go?’
The same basic meaning and effect are conveyed by the inverted idioms Will I shite (‘I will not’), Did he fuck (‘He did not’), Can you bollox (‘You cannot’), etc. In speech these are never confused with the questions they resemble because the intonation falls instead of rising.
I asked Irish people on Twitter about their use of shite compared to shit, and got many interesting answers. Preferences and nuances vary a bit, but there is broad agreement (shared by those I spoke with in person) that shite is much more expressive and usually a bit milder than shit. If you use it or hear it, in any part of the world, I’d be especially interested in your thoughts along these lines. But that’s enough shite out of me for one day.
* Obscenilect? Profanilexicon? Have we a word for this yet?
“Shite and onions” was a favourite expression of Joyce’s father and, as far as I recall, where it crops up in Ulysses it is said by Simon Dedalus. I love the expression as a kind of dysphemism: taking the inoffensive “sage and onions” and upgrading the “sage” to a deliberate profanity in an inversion of the usual “shit” → “sugar”, “fuck” → “fudge” style of comestible euphemism.
Stuart: Yes, you’re right:
Ulysses also has an expletive “Shite!”, an “I don’t give a shite anyway”, and a “Jesus, he’d kick the shite out of him”. That’s a very nice point about foody euphemisms; the surprising reversal of the pattern may be part of “Shite and onions!”s appeal. I don’t have Ellmann to hand or I’d look for any detail it might have on the phrase.
I almost certainly got the nugget about Joyce’s father favouring the expression from Ellman, though I admit I can’t actually remember the source, and I too do not have it to hand.
I think there’s an interesting distinction in how “feck” is seen in England in contrast to Ireland. Over here, it was largely introduced to us by Father Ted (oh, they don’t make them like that any more) and so, lacking the exposure to Hiberno-English, it seemed to be a transparent euphemism for “fuck”, and therefore quite thrillingly shocking (I was a teenager when Ted came out) that it was featured in a programme broadcast at 8.30 in the evening. The non-overlapping uses you detail in your separate post on it are very interesting to me because I would put money that most Anglo-English speakers presume (I certainly would have) that it is an exact substitute for “fuck” in its collocations and uses.
Feck is a funny case. The other senses of the word, such as ‘throw’ and ‘steal’, are little known outside Ireland; add that to the common tendency to simplify or assume that feck = fuck and there’s a lot of understandable uncertainty among non-Irish people about feck‘s status – and quite often the belief that it’s stronger than it really is, as you say.
Father Ted also exploited this grey area to clever and cheeky effect with fup, which manages to sound both silly and (to my ears at least) ruder than feck:
Oh God I’d forgotten about “fup.” Time to get me the box set.
No neurolinguist me, but I know there’s a lot of interesting stuff being done on which regions get activated by expletives (specifically, I think, the amygdala is of interest; it also goes well to explain why we swear when in pain when there is no communicative benefit to doing so). I would throw out a very vaguely formed hypothesis that, to Hiberno-English speakers, who learn “feck” as a separate lexical item that just happens to be amusingly close to “fuck”, it does not trigger the expletive-connections; whereas to Anglo-English speakers it is mapped directly onto “fuck” and therefore does. If you’ve got an fMRI scanner hanging around in your backyard, it would be interesting to do a simple controlled experiment playing Irish and British people Father Ted in the scanner. I’d volunteer!
So would I! Steven Pinker has a 20-minute talk here on the neuroscience (etc.) of swearing, and you might also be interested in my earlier post on multilingual swearing. It’s a lot shorter than this one.
I’ve heard “away and shite” rather than “go and shite” from Irish relatves/friends. I cannot imagine either “away and shit” or “go and shit” – perhaps because I associate “shit” far more with the specific act/thing than I do “shite”. But then, I’m English …
Thanks, Martyn – I overlooked that one. It’s a close analogue of ‘Go and shite’, but I couldn’t say which came first or whether one led to the other. I don’t use either, but I hear both now and then, and like you I find hypothetical versions with shit improbable. ‘Go ask me shite’ is another related phrase I was reminded of recently.
And one which featured in a stage play in the eighties: go long and shite with yourself.
Michael: Presumably that long = ‘long, i.e., aphaeretic along.
Worth clarifying that the New Corpus of Ireland is an Irish-language corpus, although some of the texts are intermittently bilingual. “Shit” has 45 matches to “shite”‘s 9, and a smaller ratio of those are within English-language snippets.
As an exercise for the reader, compare the data in SPICE Ireland, a spoken corpus of Irish English, downloadable here http://ice-corpora.net/ice/download.htm
Fair point, Molly. I noticed the predominance of shit in NCI but figured it wasn’t representative given the low numbers. I’ll look into SPICE Ireland when I get a chance.
I wonder if shite and onions sort of follows on from tripe and onions? Mind you I can’t remember ever hearing shite and onions when I lived in Ireland.
It’s quite possible, Dawn. As Stuart notes above, the expression is one that Joyce got from his father, John, but how he arrived at it I don’t know. I’ve never heard shite and onions in Ireland either, except in reference to Joyce.
My London Irish mother used to reply ‘Shite and onions’ when asked ‘What’s for dinner?’ She had never read Joyce.
Sean: It may have been quite common in some times and places, though I’ve never heard it used, only referred to.
Actually guys the word shitehawk stems from the south of the country. I shitehawk was someone who used to gather cow dung and sell it (hawk it) on street corners or markets. I shitehawk was the lowest of the low jobs and so, calling someone a shitehawk was a real insult.
‘Shite’ is frequently heard in Liverpool, my home town. The Irish influence no doubt.
A few years ago, during an Irish general election campaign, I was quizzing an Irish colleague on the difference between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael – a source of great mystery to anyone outside Ireland. His laconic reply: “What’s the difference between shit and shite?”
Which gave me a great idea for a corpus linguistics classroom activity…
That’s a good one, John! Though it could invite a longer answer than was warranted.
While growing up in the 1950s and ’60s the phrase used was always ‘I will AND my shite’, never ‘IN’. I think some later writers have mistaken the word because of the its shortening in the vernacular usage, such as ‘ I will ‘n’ my shite’. There were other similar phrases like ‘ I will and my Granny’, ‘I will and my arse’. ‘I will, yes, and my hole’. I feel the ‘and ‘ makes some kind of sense, but notice that ‘in’ is increasingly being used. Oh well, I suppose it’s only Rock in Roll!
It’s true, the phrase makes a little more sense with ‘and’ than with ‘in’. And it’s possible the first became the second for some people through misunderstanding. If anyone has traced its history, I’d love to know. The arse version is one I still hear now and then; it parallels the hole form used as an example in the post. I haven’t heard the Granny one yet!
My Mayo mother said “shite” regularly, as did we kids. And though “shit” was verboten, we were free to use “shite.” As for “I will and my shite,” I hea, “I will, my ass!” I am first-generation American.
I love that shite got a pass when shit was forbidden: dialect licence!
An Irish Sergeant Major of my acquaintance would implore soldiers who were irritating him to “away ye and shite”. Since it was an Irish regiment his meaning was clear. A gobeshite was someone who was never in doubt but very often in error never aware of it.