“Get your shit together”

For a couple of hours last week, a lot of people in the San Francisco area were under the impression that Bay Area Rapid Transit had, well, lost its shit.

“Get your shit together” from a public agency?

As the BART Twitter account later clarified, the signs – which had appeared on several trains in the transit system – were rogue efforts cleverly disguised as official pronouncements.

Still, the guerrillas’ choice of language seemed à propos: a tough update of “If you see something, say something” for the vulgar new Trumpian era. And it got me wondering: Where does get [one’s] shit together come from, and how long have we been saying it?

Shit itself is old, of course – Old-English old. But shit to mean “unspecified objects, materials, activities, events, stuff, things” – as opposed to referential shit (feces) or interjectory shit (with an exclamation mark) – is much more recent. The OED credits Henry Miller with the earliest citation, in Tropic of Cancer (1934): “‘We’ll fill it with our own shit – that’s what?’ ‘Yeah, but kind of shit?’ ‘Any kind.’” This is the shit that substitutes for “et cetera” or “and so on” in “… and shit”; it’s also the shit that happens.

The adverb together is Old-English old, too. But the list of historical meanings – “at the same time,” “collectively,” “in proximity” – grew in the late 1960s to include two new usages. One of these togethers, first seen in print in 1968, means “fashionable” or “up-to-date.” I was surprised to learn that the OED’s 1968 citation comes not from the U.S. but from the British Daily Mirror. “No finer honour can be bestowed upon a man down the King’s Road than to be called a together cat.”

The other newish together means “composed, self-assured, free of emotional difficulties or inhibitions.” Another surprise: The earliest citation for this usage also comes from the U.K.; it appears in Groupie, a 1969 book about the London music scene. Both of the Sixties togethers were almost certainly used in conversation well before they made it into print.

Which brings us to get [one’s] shit together.

It too is a Sixties baby – this one born in the U.S. The OED defines it as “to collect oneself, to manage one’s affairs.” The first print appearance seems to have been James Baldwin’s Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, published in 1968.

Curiously, get [one’s] shit together is about five years older than a similar, non-sweary expression: get [one’s] act together. (I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road, a musical by Gretchen Cryer and Nancy Ford, premiered Off-Broadway a few years after that, in 1978.) According to Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, the unspecified “get it together” first appeared in print in the early 1960s; it may be related to the even earlier “pull yourself together.”

Get your shit together can be reduced to a pronounceable acronym, GYST, a  fact not lost on the founders of GYST, an estate-planning service. (The legal entity is GYST Now, Inc.)

One of the founders, Chanel Reynolds, had launched GetYourShitTogether.org in 2013; “Get your shit together” still appears in GYST’s browser tab. The company plays with the gist/GYST homophony: Its newsletter is called The GYST of It, and its slogan is “Life Happens.” For life, just substitute shit.

This GYST is not to be confused with GYST, a “fermentation bar” in Minneapolis whose menu includes peanut-butter kimchi and, of course, kombucha. (Hat tip to Our Bold Hero for that link.) The website’s Our Story page informs us is “an Old English derivative for yeast,” which is a peculiar way of saying that gyst meant yeast in Old English. I shit you not.

5 thoughts on ““Get your shit together”

  1. Jonathon Owen December 6, 2016 / 4:59 pm

    The song “Slow Show” by the National has the line “Better get my shit together, better gather my shit in.” I thought that was a nice variation on the usual phrase.

    And on a fun related note, shit is cognates with words such as science and nice. See this post on Bradshaw of the Future.

    Like

    • Nancy Friedman December 6, 2016 / 6:45 pm

      IIRC, shit is also related to share and shear, from a root that means “to separate.”

      Like

      • Jonathon Owen December 6, 2016 / 7:14 pm

        Ah, yes. I believe you’re right.

        Like

  2. Ben Zimmer December 6, 2016 / 11:30 pm

    I always associate “get your shit together” with George Carlin. It’s part of the shit litany in his infamous routine, “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” (from the 1972 LP Class Clown). And it also appears in his “Death and Dying” routine (from 1977’s On the Road): “Just as in football, two minutes before you die, there is an audible warning. ‘Two minutes, get your shit together!’ And the reason we don’t know about it is because the only people who hear it, die.”

    Liked by 1 person

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