Much ado ablaut shitting

pile-of-poo

Shit has been with us an awfully long time—it appears in Old English as scitan—yet we can’t seem to agree on the past tense of the verb. Is it shit? Shat? Shitted?

My theory for why we haven’t settled this issue has partly to do with its ‑it ending, which, based on similar verbs in English, can get pulled in several different directions as we try to derive a past form. And because shit is vulgar, we generally use it less often than other verbs ending in ‑it.

Screen Shot 2015-07-07 at 11.11.02 AM
Not exhaustive, obviously, but an example showing the relative frequency of English verbs that SHIT might emulate.

So rather than having a past tense at the ready, maybe we build it on the go, by analogy:

shit (present) – shitted (simple past) – shitted (past participle)

If I coined the verb to plit and asked any native English speaker, even a young child, to tell me the past tense, they’d probably effortlessly guess it was plitted. Using the analogy to regular verbs like permit (permit – permitted – permitted) and adding ‑ed is completely intuitive and is the most common way to inflect our verbs.

We have a couple of verbs ending in ‑itfit, knit (any more?)—that can take or leave the ‑ed inflection, though, which brings us to…

shit – shit – shit

When I searched the corpus of global web-based English (GloWbE), I found some evidence that fitted and knitted (at least as past participles) were more popular in the UK and Australia and New Zealand, whereas fit and knit were used more in North America. This trend may very well apply to shit, too; in fact, Merriam-Webster lists shit and shat as the simple past in U.S. English and doesn’t even suggest shitted as a possibility.

This type of inflection is analogous to hit – hit – hit and so also sounds perfectly natural. My only caution against using this paradigm is that some situations can lead to ambiguity. Does “The ferrets shit on your lawn” refer to a regular occurrence or something that just happened once?

Another ambiguity arises between the past participle and the noun: “They have shit” is an answer to both “Have they shit?” and “Do they have shit?”

shit – shat – shat

Inflecting verbs by changing the vowel—as in ring – rang – rung—is known as ablaut. The reason we wouldn’t say shit – shat – *shut in analogy is not only because we already have the verb shut and so using it as the past participle of shit would lead to considerable confusion, but mostly because the i – a – u ablaut occurs only before nasal sounds like [n] (begin – began – begun), [m] (swim – swam – swum), or [ŋ] (sing – sang – sung). Instead, the ablaut for shit takes on the form exemplified by sit – sat – sat.

What to use?

Because searching corpora just for shit would bring up the noun and the verb in all three tenses, I couldn’t really directly compare the frequency of the three paradigms. But a comparison of shitted and shat on Google Ngrams shows the latter coming up with about four times the frequency of the former:

Screen Shot 2015-07-07 at 10.39.46 AM

and a search of the GloWbE corpus gives a ratio closer to seven. As a past participle, shat (in have/has shat) occurs a little less than twice as frequently as shit (in have/has shit), which is, in turn, quite a bit more popular than shitted (in have/has shitted).

Based on the frequency of usage, the shit – shat – shat paradigm seems to come out ahead, but any of the three is fine as long as you make sure to avoid ambiguity. Just don’t mix them: most English speakers would probably find shit – shat – shitted confusing or ungrammatical. (Fellow editors might want to start listing their preferred shit paradigm on their style sheets…)

A few extra nuggets

If you’re not a fan of uncertainty, you can always default to the noun and say take – took – taken a shit, but this cowardly move cuts out fun of sentences like “He was eminently honest and shat me not” and compounds of the verbal shit (e.g., “She admirably bullshat her way through her job interview.”)

Also, as I was digging around to see if shitten was ever used as a past participle, I found Merriam-Webster’s beautiful definition of the word as an adjective:

1. obsolete :  covered with excrement :  stained by excrement

2. obsolete :  disgusting, contemptible

I love that the “having the quality of shit” connotation is reminiscent of how we use silken or flaxen. Now my new goal in life is—through persistent, unrelenting usage—to force the dictionary to strip off that “obsolete” label. Who’s with me?

28 thoughts on “Much ado ablaut shitting

  1. Rob Chirico July 8, 2015 / 2:58 pm

    Giving it some thought (and not much at that), since the past tense of shoot is shot, perhaps by inverse logic, the past tense of shit should be shiit–pronounced “sheet”? Or maybe “shyte”?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Iva Cheung July 8, 2015 / 3:09 pm

      Ha! “Inverse logic.”

      Like

  2. susan July 8, 2015 / 3:41 pm

    I favour the Queen’s English for the past participle: “have/had a shit”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Iva Cheung July 8, 2015 / 4:00 pm

      What? I was taught the queen never shits…

      Liked by 2 people

  3. CGHill July 8, 2015 / 5:23 pm

    I have long used “bullshot” as a participle: “We’ve been bullshot again.” However, “bullshitted” seems more reasonable to me than “bullshat.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Iva Cheung July 8, 2015 / 5:27 pm

      Ah, I love “bullshot”! Like a fatal, fecal bullet.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. John Cowan July 8, 2015 / 8:45 pm

    Historically shite was the present and shit the preterite, like bite, bit. Here’s the OED’s etymology (not marked up today, sorry); note the last two paragraphs particularly:

    Cognate with West Frisian skite , Middle Dutch scīten (Dutch schijten ), Middle Low German schīten (past singular schēt , past participle geschēten , geschetten ), Old High German *skīzan (implied by the past participle piscizzano of the prefixed verb *beskīzan ; Middle High German schīzen (past singular scheiz , past participle schizzen ), German scheissen ), Old Icelandic skíta (past participle skittin ), Old Swedish, Swedish skita , Old Danish skidhæ (Danish skide ) < the same Indo-European base as shed v.1 Compare shit n.

    With the semantic development shown in Germanic perhaps compare Lithuanian skysti (intransitive) to break up, to melt, man viduriai skysta I get diarrhoea, and also Early Irish sceid vomits, spews, Welsh chwydu to vomit, to spew, all ultimately from the same Indo-European base.

    Unattested as a simplex in Old English; however, compare the prefixed verb bescītan, which, together with the evidence of the Germanic cognates, implies the existence of an Old English strong verb of Class I (with principal parts *scītan , *scāt , *sciton , *sciten ). Such a paradigm is reflected by the forms attested in Middle English (with past tense schoot , schote , etc. reflecting southern Middle English rounding of the reflex of Old English ā ).

    Present tense forms with a short vowel (not clearly attested before early modern English) probably show influence partly from shit n. and partly from the past participle (as does the rare Middle English present tense form schete , reflecting past participle forms which show lengthening of short i in an open syllable).

    The past tense and past participle form shat (not attested before the 19th cent.) probably arose from present tense shit , by analogy with sit , sat (see sit v.).

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Y July 8, 2015 / 9:07 pm

    The OED says that shitted for both the Simple Past and Past Participle is a 19th-century innovation. shat for the Simple Past goes back to the 18th century, for the Participle only back to the 19th. In earlier Modern English the triple shit is prevalent, though the Middle English Dictionary shows shiten as late as 1591 (in the Chester Plays, “a shitten-arsed shrowe”), not to mention Chaucer, Shame it is if a preest take keep / A shiten shepherde and a clene sheep.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. chris July 9, 2015 / 1:08 am

    shat has a nice ‘classy’ sound to it, plus you can say “The cat shat on the mat”. Can’t do that with shitted.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Iva Cheung July 9, 2015 / 4:51 am

      The shitten kitten.

      Like

      • chris July 10, 2015 / 3:09 am

        We had a drunken footballer a decade or so ago in Australia who needed urgent relief, he found a teammate’s (named Scholz) footwear; headlines indicated that he “shat in Scholzie’s shoe”. Shitted would have ruined the ryhthm?

        Liked by 1 person

  7. cynthiamvoss July 9, 2015 / 3:00 am

    In the U.S. you tend to hear shat more than shitted, although if you do happen to hear or read that online, the speaker is most likely joking around. I can’t imagine a person trying to intimidate someone or win an argument and angrily yelling the word shat. There’s going to be giggles.
    Generally for the past tense you’ll hear something like “the dog took a shit on the floor” rather than “the dog shat on the floor.” Why learn the conjugation when you can just write around it 😛
    The word split doesn’t turn into splat or splitted, so maybe shit is similar. Or sometimes it could be used like spit/spat, but probably just to be silly. Anyway, good article, funny shit.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. hanmeng July 9, 2015 / 3:43 am

    I used to have a dictionary that always seemed to open at the page that had the word “excrementitiously” at the top.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. This British-American Life July 9, 2015 / 3:32 pm

    Reblogged this on This British-American Life and commented:
    Strong Language is a blog that help you rationalize your filthy mouth because it adds an intellectual bent to it. If you want to dig deeper in the history and the hows and whys of the art of swearing, this is the place to go. Enjoy!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Rob Chirico July 10, 2015 / 3:36 am

    If you are rather long in the tooth, therefore requiring those adult nappies, are you a Shatner?

    Like

    • John Cowan July 10, 2015 / 4:29 pm

      Not usually, no; urinary incontinence (I started to write “incompetence”) is far more common, and more common in women than men.

      Like

    • CMH July 12, 2015 / 9:56 am

      I’ve also heard “beshitten” rather than “shitten”, but it feels a little different. Like a beshitten object has had shit applied from an external source, but a shitten one has an inherent, internal source of shittiness.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Iva Cheung July 12, 2015 / 2:37 pm

        A subtle difference in agency. Makes intuitive sense to me!

        Like

      • CMH July 13, 2015 / 4:33 pm

        Yes, the same way “silken” and “silky” can be synonyms, I’d say.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Iva Cheung July 13, 2015 / 4:47 pm

        CMH and יובל פינטר:

        I see “beshitten” and “shitten” as referring to literal shit, whereas “shitty” is a negative qualifier that can be used figuratively.

        Like

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