Taking a bite out of “shit sandwich”

These are the best of times for the hard-working shit- prefix. Last week, here on Strong Language, Ben Zimmer investigated the origins of shitgibbon – an epithet that has attached itself to the current occupant of the White House – and plumbed its deeper history in a follow-up post on Slate’s Browbeat blog. This week, the merde du jour is shit sandwich, which surfaced Thursday afternoon in a tweet from CNN anchor Jake Tapper about Robert Harward, a retired vice admiral, refusing the post of national security adviser.


(More on Harward from CNN here and from Esquire here.)

Whether Harward actually uttered the words “shit sandwich” is up for debate; Tapper’s single source was anonymous, and the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Financial Times didn’t even allude in a non-sweary way to the expression. Still, it’s as good a time as any — given the feculent state of affairs at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and environs — to take a closer look at the history of shit sandwich. Which turns out to be more curious than you might suppose.

First of all, unlike its culinary kin shit on a shingle (creamed chipped beef on toast; commonly abbreviated as S.O.S.), shit sandwich is most likely not a World War II army coinage. Shit sandwich, variously defined as “a very unpleasant situation” (OED) or “a humbling experience; humble pie” (Green’s Dictionary of Slang), first appeared in print, according to the OED, in 1966. Mysteriously, that appearance was in the English translation of An Anecdoted Topography of Chance, by the Swiss artist Daniel Spoerri, who had written the book in French. Here is the relevant passage:

Just this morning Monsieur Georges expanded the philosophical observation of one of his customers, Camille, that ‘Life is a shit sandwich’ with: ‘Yes, and we take a bite every day.’

The OED annotates the citation:

[The use in quot. 1966  is from an interpolation in the English version of the text, and does not have an analogue in the French original.]

No pain à la merdeSacre bleu!

Could shit sandwich have been coined by soldiers in a later conflict — specifically, the Vietnam War? That’s possible, even likely. In a 2011 Language Log post, the linguist Mark Liberman writes that the idiom “Satan sandwich” is “a sanitized version of the old expression ’shit sandwich’,” which “has been in widespread use, for at least half a century, to describe a deeply unpleasant experience which is nevertheless something that you’re expected to swallow. I certainly heard it more than once in Vietnam.”

Moreover, it turns up — in phrasing almost identical to that in Anecdoted Topography — in a scene in Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 film Full Metal Jacket. The movie, set in 1967 and 1968, is based in part on the war experiences of Michael Herr, author of the Vietnam memoir Dispatches.

“In other words, it’s a huge shit sandwich, and we’re all gonna have to take a bite.”

Liberman had this to say about that particular expression:

This phrase came to be associated with the football player and coach Joe Schmidt, who was fond of the maxim “Life is a shit sandwich, and every day you take another bite”. (The more sanitary end of this saying was used by Larry Merchant for the title of his 1971 football book “And every day you take another bite.”)

Joe Schmidt (born 1932) played professional football from 1953 to 1965, and coached the Detroit Lions from 1967 to 1972.

Shit sandwich is also frequently extended into a different idiom, this one about money (“bread”).


Disconcertingly, shit sandwich is not always a metaphor. See, for example, a November 5, 2016, story in the San Antonio Express-News, tactfully headlined “Officials: SA cop fired for attempting to feed fecal sandwich to homeless person.” (“This was a vile and disgusting act that violates our guiding principles of ‘treating all with integrity, compassion, fairness and respect,’ Chief William McManus said in a prepared statement.”)

With shit sandwich featuring so prominently in the news, can an emoji be far behind?


17 thoughts on “Taking a bite out of “shit sandwich”

  1. Chips Mackinolty February 18, 2017 / 1:23 am

    So do we get a shit eating grin from sandwiches?

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Patrick Collins February 18, 2017 / 9:45 pm

    Daniel SpoerRi, it appears, as I looked into the book further.

    The English edition was expanded from the French original with extra bits by the American translator (poet, visual artist and friend of Spoerri) Emmett Williams, Spoerri himself, Robert Filliou and others (possibly).

    I found a blog with that passage from the book, notes related to a litre of wine that the author was drinking as he wrote the original piece, No. 3 on the map of objects in his room that each inspired copious notes. https://middletonvanjonker.wordpress.com/category/uncategorized/page/3/ Here is the relevant paragraph (more at source).

    Author’s Additional Note

    ** I erred. It wasn’t the wine dealer who said “With what I’ve seen in this place I could write a novel stretching from here to Place Maubert,” Tr. No. 1, but Georges Rodier, proprietor of Les Cinq Billards cafe at Place de la Contrescsarpe (See No. 70). An American, Joe Chapeau, set me straight on this point. He is called Joe Chapeau because of the filthy Spanish cowboy hat he always wears, which probably serves him as a source of inspiration for the delicate romantic portraits he paints. Just this morning Monsieur George expanded the philosophical observation of one of his customers, Camille, that “Life is a shit sandwich” with: “Yes, and we take a bite every day.”

    It was not an “Author’s Original Note” or a “Translator’s Note” so must have been written by Daniel Spoerri himself for the English translation/update/new edition published in 1966. The café was in the Latin Quarter on the Left Bank in Paris, of course.


    • Nancy Friedman February 18, 2017 / 9:51 pm

      Thanks for flagging my typo and providing the very interesting background information, Patrick. I’ve updated the post with Spoerri’s correct name.


      • Patrick Collins February 18, 2017 / 11:03 pm

        I was looking for more on the hippie/beatnik/avant-garde artist inhabitants of the area of Place de la Contrescarpe in the 1960s and found some serendipitous shit from a French hippie. http://paris70.free.fr/mouffe.htm “Shit” may have been a well-known word in the area at the time as this page describes (in the same paragraph as Les Cinq Billards) kilos of shit on tables (des kilos de shit sur les tables) and someone who always had the good shit (Samos qui avait tout le temps du bon shit). On another of his pages we have “Le Mahjun* est une recette marocaine de gateau au shit.” * Mahjoun, a cannabis resin sweet originally made in Morocco.

        Perhaps a shit sandwich was not always so bad 🙂


  3. Sepp February 19, 2017 / 3:03 am

    “Shit” when used in French in that context refers specifically to hashish. (Interestingly, it usually refers to heroin in German)


    • Nancy Friedman February 19, 2017 / 3:17 am

      Shit is also a slang term for marijuana in English.


  4. Iva Cheung February 19, 2017 / 6:27 pm

    In my editorial training, I was taught always to start and end with positive feedback and put the suggestions for improvement in the middle, a strategy some of my colleagues refer to as the shit sandwich.


  5. Nancy Friedman February 21, 2017 / 11:10 pm

    After this post was cross-posted on the Slate BrowBeat blog, a reader emailed me some further documentation:

    “Tolstoy says somewhere that life is a tartine de merde, which one is meant to eat slowly. These things have been around for a while.”

    Sure enough, this maxim shows up (as “La vie, c’est une tartine de merde et il faut que tu en manges une bouchée tous les jours”) in several places online; it’s attributed to Tolstoy but without documentation in any of his writings. A tartine is an open-faced sandwich; Leo Tolstoy was born in 1828 and died in 1910.

    “Tartine de Merde” is the title of a Randy Newman song.


  6. John McCartney February 22, 2017 / 1:57 am

    There is also the saying “Life is like a shit sandwich; the more bread you have the less shit you have to eat.” I believe that this dates from the 60’s, when the use of “bread” for “money” was popular.


    • Nancy Friedman February 22, 2017 / 2:11 am

      See the SomeECards image in the post, and my explanation of “bread.”


  7. Nipsey February 23, 2017 / 2:25 pm

    Shark sandwich


  8. leatherneck6693 February 25, 2017 / 8:16 pm

    My favorite use of the term comes from a joke where a soldier comes out of the mess hall and a fellow solider asks whats to eat today. He says “I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that all they have are shit sandwiches. The good news is that there isn’t enough to go around.”


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