What’s this sack of shit?

Have a look at this sack of shit.

click to embiggen
click to embiggen

Ain’t that some shit? For some fucking reason, shit seems to come mainly in sacks, less often (lately) in bags and buckets, rarely in boxes or cans, and never in bins. So why the fuck is that?

Obviously, no one other than farmers and gardeners is literally buying shit in sacks. But the world is not short of figurative sacks of shit. A sack of shit is usually a person (“What a sack of shit he was” [Dancing in the Dark: My Struggle, Karl Ove Knausgaard, 2015]), or, on uncommon occasion, an undesirable object with some complexity of contents. A couple of emblematic examples from the National Labor Relations Board are served up by Google Books:

Chellis testified that rough shop talk was common at the Company although it was “jocular” in tone. Frequently used terms were “son of a bitch,” “bastard,” and “sack of shit.” [1984]

According to Stimson, Davis said, “why don’t you sign that friggin contract so we can get back to work?” Stimson responded that he would rather “go under than to sign a document” which he described as that “sack of shit.” [1990]

There are also instances of the longer phrase lying sack of shit, which presents even more clearly the image of a person as a loose container of bad things. As Walter Ganzer wrote in Life on the Backside of Sixty [2015], “Less than truthful people can be lying sacks of shit, others not just lazy, but lazy sacks of shit, and stupid becomes stupid sacks of shit; it’s amazing how many things you can add a sack of shit to.” A sack of shit is bigger, looser, perhaps more complex, and messier, than a piece of shit.

But what about bags? If we can have sacks of shit we can have bags of shit, naturally. A person can be a bag of shit, sure, and so can a situation. But uses seem to include the more visually oriented:

As a result, Hermie looked up from where he lay on the sand to see Benjie flying over him like a bag of shit, striking full force at empty sky, then landing with a scream, right on his stupid nose just as it was inhaling. [Summer of ’42, Herman Raucher, 1971]

She could have got out of this whole thing for a five-dollar bag of shit. [S.R.O., Robert Deane Pharr, 1971]

So you hang that bag of shit on the right pair of horns, buddy. [Lay Down My Sword and Shield, James Lee Burke, 1971]

By the time they give you that one, your head’s nothing but a bag of shit. [The Power Forward, Walter Kaylin, 1979]

“My feelings are my bag of shit, and I’ll play in my bag when I want to. You keep your hands in your own bag of shit and ask me anything you want.” [Breaking the Cycle of Child Abuse, Christine Comstock Herbruck, 1979]

A bucket of shit, on the other hand, being of the nature of a container things are tossed into, seems – when not literal (as it sometimes is, since shit is sometimes collected in buckets) – to be mainly a kind of situation.

A true artist should be able to jump into a bucket of shit and come out smelling of violets [The Overreachers, Gay Talese, 1965]

When that big bucket of shit hits the fan, man, and the rifles are popping from the roofs like it was the Fourth of July… [Moths in a Rag Shop, Robert Chambers, 1968]

On the other hand, a fellow didn’t have to drown himself in a bucket of shit just to prove a point, did he? [House of Flesh, William Wetmore, 1968]

Me and a couple of other key guys broke our nuts organizing this city and you guys fell into a bucket of shit. [The Sweet Life of Jimmy Riley, James Reardon, 1980]

It translates roughly as ‘Life is a bucket of shit, monsieur, I quite agree, and while I am prepared to acknowledge this fact, I shall offer you no sympathy because, monsieur, this is your bucket of shit.’ [Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe, Bill Bryson, 1991]

You might expect a similar effect with a bin, but it seems that bins are for papers and things like that. Shit goes in buckets. And that’s that. No bins of shit.

Since a box is also a container, but a tidier one, pre-packed, sometimes a gift, you would expect a greater sense of order. Which is kinda problematic, because shit is disorderly. The entire point of shit is to be messy. So we see a mention of a “Pandora’s box of shit” in Chuck Stone’s 1970 King Strut, and otherwise just a few mentions of literal boxes containing food or other goods that are only figuratively shit. Very few boxes of shit.

And cans? The point of cans is that they are opaque things you open, and on opening them you discover the contents. So the few instances of can of shit mostly include a mention of opening them, and it may be an allusion to opening a can of worms, which of course is a messy and irreversible situation:

“You’ve opened up a right can of shit” Patterson said, his face flushed red with uncontrolled anger [Excalibur’s Run, J.P. Burke, 2013].

But now look at the fucking this.

click to embiggen
click to embiggen

Swing that shit around and everything changes. Lots of shitbags and shitboxes and shitcans, and somewhat fewer shitsacks and shitbuckets! And, once again, no shitbins.

The uses of shitbag are in a similar line to sack of shit. We get a nice example of it in a 1973 edition of the collected letters of Carl Jung:

Your medical man is a stupid shitbag who ought to become a psychiatrist so that he can get better acquainted with X., whose sister I saved from the madhouse.

There are various instances in novels of “You’re a shitbag” or “You’re an old shitbag” or similar abusive speech, and a couple of someone being referred to as Shitbag. In Vasily Aksenov’s 1984 The Burn, we get “Afterward, Pantelyusha, you must go and see that shitbag Picasso.” It presents a handy dismissive summation.

While there are few boxes of shit, there are more shitboxes, which are often mechanical devices, especially cars, and in a couple of cases a house:

“I have been carrying my face in your shitbox of a car for two hours. Photograph me.” [They Shall Not Pass, Bruce Palmer, 1971]

“Go with them, go!” shouted Ashcan. “We’ll smoke those cuntlappers!” Twiller turned his head and watched the car behind them moving up, closing the gap. Scuduto threw his shitbox into second and tromped it. [Jack in the Box, William Kotzwinkle, 1980]

The Manhattan Transfer (of course one of our two or three real favourites) got chewed up in my shitbox, which was made in shitland, the mythical country that produces only defective equipment. [Letters from China, Maureen Hynes, 1981]

After he died in 1960, and Mother and I moved into our little two bedroom shitbox out in Avondale, we hung it over our fireplace. [Deadeye Dick, Kurt Vonnegut, 1982]

Ada said, “We’re all three living in the damnedest little shitbox you ever saw. It’s sort of a housetrailer but it’s got no wheels. We bring in water in a pail.” [The Love of Good Women, Isabel Miller, 1986]

They are boxes in the sense that they contain and are constructed, and they are shit in the sense that they are shit (rather than containing shit). So a shitbox is not a box of shit. It is a box that is shit.

Uses of shitbucket are sometimes literal:

The commisaris remembered how he had eaten a piece of bread that one of his fellow prisoners, blinded by blood which ran into his eyes from a cut just above the eyebrow caused by the wedding ring of an interrogating German police officer, had accidentally dropped into the shitbucket. [Tumbleweed, Janwillem Van de Wetering, 1976]

Then your fingers stink in the morning because you accidentally reached into the shitbucket instead of the rose water. [Olga’s Room, Dea Loher, 2013]

But otherwise uses of shitbucket lean to the abusive and the expressive – there is some satisfaction in saying it, perhaps, especially since it rhymes with “fuck it” – and sometimes it refers to boats or cars:

Shit, the old man lived in the same row house in that shitbucket street all his fucking life. [Ricochet, Ovid Demaris, 1982]

If there’s two people, well, it’s really no worse than a wee accountant going to work alone in his shitbucket Granada. [A White Merc with Fins, James M. Hawes, 1996]

“I paid cash for these tickets when I got on this shitbucket.” [The Flaming Corsage, William Kennedy, 1997]

“I’m fourteen now. I guess I can say it if I want to.” And I wanted to, right that minute. “Shitbucket,” I said. “Shitbucket, hellfire, damnation, and son of a mother bitch,” said Rosaleen, laying into each word like it was sweet potatoes on her tongue. [The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd, 2003]

And shitsack? Similar to shitbag, but less common.

“Landlord’s the world’s biggest shitsack, don’t care nothin’ except about his lousy rent money first of every month. So…” He aimed a rueful glance at the pistol in my hand. [The Midnight Special: A Thomas Purdue Mystery, Larry Karp, 2001]

“Now, mister,” said Greavy, “I say you’re a dirty shitsack. How about that?”
Keese found this cryptic. “I don’t get your drift,” he said equitably. [Neighbors, Thomas Berger, 2005]

“Open this door you dirtbag motherfucker! You smelly slimeball shitsack! Open the fucking door!” [After Twilight: Walking with the Dead, Travis Adkins and Andre Duza, 2008]

I hooked up with Ray Shitsack; honest that’s what they called him – a blonde blue eyed good looking kid from the engine shop. [The Lab Rat Chronicles, George Burro, 2009]

It also has a literal reference, the anus:

Stamping myth upon life, KISS had come to town like a dinosaur releasing its shitsack on a mouse: It was December 19, 1977. I was eleven. And it was a school night. [The Reconciliation of All Things: God and the Alcoholic Mind, Gregory Christianson, 2010]

Shitcan is a special case because, along with being used literally to name a chamber-pot, semi-figuratively to name a wastebin, and more figuratively to name things such as boats – using the metal container schema – it is also a verb meaning to dismiss someone from employment (fire them, in other words), or more generally to discard someone or something. It’s safe to assume this last sense comes from tossing them in the shitcan, just like the shit-less equivalent.

It’s like a rat staring out at you from a turned-over shitcan. [Armed Camps, Kit Reed, 1969]

“…you grew up in that dogshit trailer park with that fucking pig drunk of a mother and ex-con of a father and you hated being the little shitcan-poor kid.” [The Look, Nina Blanchard, 1995]

Along with the tired Indian image, I’d like to shitcan all racist mascots. [The Rez Road Follies: Canoes, Casinos, Computers, and Birch Bark Baskets, Jim Northrup, 1997]

Surely there must be some way out of poetry other than
Mallarmé’s: still-life with bars and shitcan. [Mulberry Leaves, Robert Adamson, 2001]

Further, I reject the majority’s finding, consistent with the judge, that the Respondent violated the Act by Donaldson’s comment that he would “shitcan” the employees for their union activities. [Decisions and Orders of the National Labor Relations Board, 2004]

“The shitcan. You still have that car. Wow. Can we maybe get arrested in the shitcan tonight?” [Days of Grace, Mark Falkin, 2006]

So we can see that they have different senses dictated in large part by the schemata they draw on – all containers (that’s why I’m comparing them, duh), but with different qualities and uses and processes and structure and so on. But what else? There are the other things they can refer to or call to mind, of course.

Sack brings us beds, dismissals from employment (sack someone, give someone the sack), tacklings of quarterbacks, and of course sackcloth, sack races, gunny sacks… and dry sherry. And the scrotum, naturally.

Bag can call forth a game back, a bag of tricks, the brand new bag papa’s got, the bags we check on the plane, and bag ladies, bag lunches, dirtbags, and windbags. And the scrotum too – which, along with a few other things, can be called a scumbag.

Box gives us box lunch, ballot box, the idiot box, batter’s box, boxing matches, boxcars, box-cutters, box seats, and thinking outside the box. And it can refer to the vagina.

Bucket is a bit more limited in extent; many of the things it calls forth, such as a bucket brigrade, are focused on its use to carry liquid. Bucket seats are a notable exception, as is Florence Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced “bouquet!”) from Keeping Up Appearances. And, recently, a bucket can carry fail: see Neal Whitman and Ben Zimmer on this (and more).

Bin is not a word that carries shit, but why not? It’s not as widely used, perhaps, and you’re more likely to chuck shit it in a bucket. But bins can be laden with other things, include waste(paper), wines, and loonies, and of course there was that Bin Laden chap.

Can can carry a fair few things, but none of them are fresh. Even pre-recorded music is called canned… especially, I suppose, if it’s being played for can-can dancers, who may be waggling their cans (the front ones or the back ones). There are also film cans, and of course can is a name for the lavatory.

So we may suspect that sack of shit is most common at least in part because it’s more all-purpose, and perhaps because sack has fewer positive overtones than bag. That doesn’t help us account for the preference of shitbag to shitsack, however. That may have some relation to dirtbag and scumbag.

There’s no question that the sound can make a difference. “Sack of shit,” for instance, has a slick percussive sound, consistent all the way through, like slipping and slapping in slack wet muck, whereas “bag of shit” is blunter, duller, less catchy. “Bucket of shit” is a teeny bit long. On the other hand, “shitbucket” is a good length and is percussive all the way through, while “shitsack” is very brief and punchy, like cocking a shotgun. “Shitbag” has less of a strong attack – might say a more flaccid ending.

Note also the direction of vowel movement. We tend to move down and back from first (stressed) vowel to second (stressed) vowel in words such as pitter-patter and tick-tock and teeny-tiny, as well as in verb conjugations: stink, stank, stunk. The simple compounds all work with this pattern – shitsack, shitbag, shitbox, shitbucket, shitcan – although shitbin would not. The prepositional phrases (sack of shit etc.) all run directly against it, effectively leaning forward at the end.

There’s also what the words sound like. A sack may be thought of as slack in part because “sack” sounds like “slack,” for instance. “Bucket,” as already mentioned, rhymes with “fuck it” (and “suck it” too). “Bag” sits in a set with “beg, big, bog, bug” and rhymes with quite a few words, including “lag, drag, flag” (and of course “fag”). “Shitcan” calls up “tin can”; it’s less resonant but harder, more cutting. “Box” has a blunt beginning but may have some resonance of “cocks” – not as strong as the effect of its slang reference to a vagina, of course.

And then there’s the question of history. For the most part, as you can see in the ngrams, the history of printed use is not very long for these words, and the origin and development is perfectly clear. There are just two that bring us some extra interest: sack of shit and shitsack.

Sack of shit shows up stronger earlier in figurative use than some of the others. Michael McClure’s 1956 play The Beard, which drew some attention from reviewers and legal bodies for its scurrilousness, included the much-quoted line “You’re a sack of shit!” This may have been a bit of a vector, but more interesting still is the phrase’s use in military contexts. David Dodge’s 1969 Hooligan has a sergeant saying, to himself, “I’ll be a sad sack of shit.” In the 1953 novel Prince Bart by Jay Richard Kennedy we read this:

Then you’re ready for an S O S landing.

Abbreviation for Sack of Shit. Civilian translation – not landing on your feet – which is what each and every one of us were worrying about ready to jump into the empty dark wilderness of space.

In Robert S. Rivkin’s 1970 GI Rights and Army Justice: The Draftee’s Guide to Military Life and Law, this exchange is given:

“You’re a fat sack of shit, aren’t you?” “Yes, Sergeant, I’m a fat sack of shit.” The sergeant softened. “And we’re going to knock some of that shit out of you, aren’t we?” “Yes, Sergeant.”

The trail gets a clearer still in John Costello’s 1987 Virtue Under Fire: How World War II Changed Our Social and Sexual Attitudes:

Conversation became “shooting the shit”; abuse of authority was “chicken shit”; bawling out was “ass-chewing”; and a downtrodden GI was “a sad sack of shit” – origin of the famous cartoon character “Sad Sack.”

Aha! But why a sack rather than a bag? Perhaps because of the difference in size and other characteristics between a sack (a gunny sack, a sack of potatoes, etc.) and a bag (such as a kit bag or a diplomatic bag). Readers with military backgrounds may be able to contribute more on the tone and various usages of the two words in the armed forces.

And then there’s shitsack. A particular old use of shitsack from the later 1600s was as a term of abuse specifically for Nonconformists, who were Protestants who did not accept the authority of the Church of England. But why would they be called that, of all things? Well, there used to be a holiday in England – from 1660 to 1859, and the commemoration persisted long past that in some areas (such as Wiltshire and Berkshire) – called Oak Apple Day or Royal Oak Day, also sometimes called Shick-Shack Day. That day commemorated the escape of Charles II in 1651 from Cromwell’s soldiers by hiding in an oak tree. People would wear oak apples, also known as shick-shacks. The Nonconformists, who opposed the reestablishment of the monarch’s ecclesiastical authority, wouldn’t wear them.

So hmm. They wouldn’t wear the shick-shacks, so they were shitsacks? In fact, it gets even more interesting than that. Although for some time it was thought that shitsack was a “corruption” of shick-shack, it is more likely that the derivation went the other way: shick-shack is a corruption of shit-sack (yes, alteration through prudishness is corruption). Some authors have protested that this shit is a Wiltshire past tense for shot, though that doesn’t match the usual ablaut sequence in English verbs, and anyway it doesn’t help to explain the connection of it to oak-apples.

So they were shitsacks because they wouldn’t wear shitsacks? In fact, it may even have gone the other way entirely: the Nonconformists were called shitsacks, an obvious term of abuse, because they denied the Church of England; they wouldn’t wear the oak-apples; subsequently the oak-apples themselves that signified not being shitsacks came to be called shitsacks. This may seem as wrong-way as the shot derivation, but weirder things have happened. Anyway, that’s the version Green’s Dictionary of Slang goes with, and who am I to gainsay it?

And why call them shitsacks rather than anything else? No one seems to be able to say.

And did these shitsacks have anything to do with our subsequent sacks of shit? Also not really possible to say, but it seems unlikely to have had any strong direct influence. Few if any of the American GI sad sacks would have been familiar with Wiltshire dialect, for one thing.

So anway. All of this has been your ten pounds of shit in a five-pound sack for today, and yet at the end we still don’t know for sure. Well, welcome to linguistics. Certainty is for shitsacks and other fuckheads.

11 thoughts on “What’s this sack of shit?

  1. Kate January 3, 2017 / 5:01 am

    That was truly marvellous. I’m shitting myself laughing in my shitbox of a house.

    But shit, man. It’s fucking Hyacinth Bucket, not Florence. She may think her shit don’t stink but that’s no reason to get her name wrong. Sheeeeeeit. You’ll have to wear that shitsack now.

    Liked by 1 person

    • sesquiotic January 3, 2017 / 5:13 am

      Gah! The one thing I forgot to look up! Sheeeeeeeeeit.


  2. Keith January 3, 2017 / 9:53 am

    Good article, if I had been a septic I might even have said that it’s the shit, but other than a very brief allusion to “the famous comic strip”, nothing at all about Sad Sack.


    Talk of nasty things in boxes, bags and sacks reminds me of expressions for an ugly person as having a face like a “bag of spanners” or a “box of frogs”; irregular, all mixed up, and either angular or slimy


  3. G. Campbell January 3, 2017 / 3:54 pm

    Someone once told me to “get your shit in one sock!” Do you have anything on this expression? I had never heard it before then, or since then–except I use it myself.

    Liked by 1 person

    • zipfslaw1 January 22, 2017 / 10:59 pm

      “To have one’s shit in one sock” is a military thing, as far as I know–in any case, I don’t think that I heard it before my time in the service; I heard it and used it frequently during my time in the service; and I don’t recall hearing it since I got out of the service.


  4. old gobbo January 4, 2017 / 2:58 pm

    Feel somewhat beshitten myself after this outpouring. Two or maybe three small points:
    a) shit-can, v.: Partridge Dictionary of Slang (8th ed) defines the transitive verb as “to wrong” someone deserving it, and gives the source as low Australian (though how you tell one from another …). This seems somewhat different from the employment termination you focus on

    b) Improbable Research and the New Scientist recently had an informative paragraph or two on the general subject of shit. The first drew attention to the difficulty of getting your stuff together, as noted in Environmental Health Perspectives: http://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/15-10438/ It is easy to poo-poo the academic tendency to vanish up one’s own fundamental misunderstanding, but this article was a serious and no doubt ordurous attempt to bring order to presenting and subsequently searching for data on microbiome samples, variously described as feces, faeces, ordure, manure, excreta and stool (specialists may be interested that the figures for “stool- not-faeces” and “stool-not-feces” are very different, which may reflect the Atlantic divide between two cultures of spoken English which are often as proximate as two buttocks.)

    The New Scientist added a helpful comment from David Waltner-Toews (NS 17sep16): “The problem is that to lump frass, spraints, manure, and excrement into one category, while useful in some circumstances, is problematic in others” [He devotes a chapter to the subject in “The Origin of Feces”] New Scientist was alarmed, however, at Waltner-Teows’ suggestion that the words science and shit “share the same Proto-Indo-European root”. However, as Tony Tweedale, who drew attention to the whole thing, points out, the words do both derive from the notion of splitting, and it would be unconscionable not to recognise this [http://www.improbable.com/2016/08/09/shit-and-the-need-for-data-driven-standards/].
    The question remains how much of the rest of academic research is a load of crap ?

    As a small observation, may I just note that the past participle of the verb is often formed semi-humorously, as in phrases like “I really shat on him”: it is, I think, often overlooked that this is in fact the quite correct modern pronunciation of the Old English past participle.


  5. jp 吉平 January 7, 2017 / 6:23 pm

    Like. I personally have always been partial to “pile of shit” as I consider a pile of it to be dumber and more worthless than a sack of it.


  6. sesquiotic January 10, 2017 / 4:20 pm

    I have determined that I will have to do a second article to cover all the non-container “[noun] of shit”s out there (piece, pile – oh, and crock, which is a container but one that only carries shit these days). Look for it in the time of fullness. I mean the fullness of time.


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