Here are some of the things I’ve seen characterized as a shitshow (or a shit show) during the last 115 days:
- A Q-and-A session involving the ride-hailing company Uber
- The British Labour Party
- The British rail system
- The Long Island Rail Road
- The New York restaurant Tavern on the Green
- The Fyre Festival
- College basketball
- Chicago Cubs baseball
- The Facebook page of Congressman Eric Paulsen, Republican of Minnesota
- Australian internet
- The U.S. healthcare system
- President Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey
- Trump’s on-camera interview with NBC news anchor Lester Holt about the Comey firing
- American democracy
Go back just a little further and we have late-night host John Oliver’s “Clowntown Fuck-the-World Shitshow 2016” (March 2016); fellow late-night host Samantha Bee’s “most deranged electoral shit show in a generation” (February 2016) and “Shit Show the Musical” (à propos the presidential inauguration); and Michael Moore’s “My friends, this … is … a shit show” (also à propos the inauguration, at :55 in the video). In the March 2016 issue of the Atlantic Jeffrey Goldberg reported that President Obama privately called the situation in Libya a shit show. (In public, he called it a “mess.”)
And that’s very far from a comprehensive list. It’s enough to make one agree with this sentiment from @hugetiny in Austin, Texas:
@tgrochowicz To be fair we’re in bit of a shitshow renaissance, the rules are changing daily
— Patrick V Barrett (@hugetiny) May 12, 2017
Renaissance or recrudescence, the current shitshow pileup is noteworthy, especially when you consider that the term itself appears to be relatively recent. Although Urban Dictionary’s oldest definition is from 2003 (“an event or situation which is characterized by an [sic] ridiculously inordinate amount of frenetic activity”), the phrase seems to have been rare enough in 2010 for Robert Sutton to publish a blog post marveling at “the new phrase” he’d recently learned while giving a talk at Pixar, the animation company:
Before my talk, there was a hilarous [sic] interview with a Pixar insider, and one of the best parts was when she was asked her favorite swear word. She mentioned a traditional one, but then added her new favorite was “shit show.” As with the rest of the group, I was quite taken with it.
Sutton happens to be the author of The No-Asshole Rule, so it’s not as though he’s an expletive-avoider.
The origins of shit show or shitshow are, alas, murky. Although it sounds like an expression that might have been invented by Americans serving in World War II (like fubar) or Vietnam (like clusterfuck), shitshow appears not to be American in origin at all. The major U.S. dictionaries, Merriam-Webster and American Heritage, have not yet added it to their online word hoards. The online Collins Dictionary, based in the UK, received a reader-submitted “new word” entry for shit-show (yes, hyphenated) in 2012: “A chaotic, freewheeling state of affairs characterised by rampant disorder and the apparent absence of any thoughtful organization.” The OED added its own entry for the term (spelled shitshow) only within the last couple of years; it’s labeled “U.S. coarse slang” and defined as “a situation or state of affairs characterized by chaos, confusion, or incompetence; a mess, a shambles, a debacle.”
Curiously, the OED’s earliest citation is in the 1974 Yearbook of the European Convention of Human Rights, which was published in 1976, and it turns out to be the English translation of something said (in German, presumably), by a member of Germany’s Red Army Faction — better known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang — to the presiding judge in her 1973 trial: “There is that swine again. We don’t want this shit-show any longer …”
That quote comes courtesy of Katherine O’Connor Martin, head of U.S. dictionaries for Oxford University Press, who was interviewed by Mike Vuolo in 2015 for the Lexicon Valley blog (now podcast). In the resulting post, “The Craptastic History of Sh-t Show,” Vuolo notes that from the beginning, the term had “an apparent sense of spectacle.” (The following year, Vuolo and co-host Bob Garfield called on listeners to research and submit the original German expression; as far as I can tell, their appeal is still unanswered.) Vuolo attempted to refine shitshow’s definition:
Perhaps the most instructive way to think about shit show is in contrast to its scatological cousin, shitstorm, which dates to at least the 1940s when Norman Mailer put it in the mouths of American soldiers in The Naked and the Dead. … If a shitstorm is actual war, unrelenting and ominous, a shit show is the Bruckheimer-esque blockbuster about the war—spectacular, craptacular, or both.
James Ellroy used shit show in his 1990 novel L.A. Confidential, which is set in the early 1950s and was later made into a movie: “The investigation’ll be a shit show and we’ll never get the killer.” In his 2015 Lexicon Valley post, Mike Vuolo notes that “Ellroy’s shit show is the very ‘fixed lexical item’ that lexicographers at Oxford are interested in, meaning, like the example from the Baader-Meinhof trial, a circus of sorts.”
It’s important to distinguish between “a shit show” (emphasis on shit) and “a shit show” (emphasis on show). The latter phrase, in which shit functions as a modifier (see Iva Cheung’s instructive Strong Language post for a deeper analysis), refers to a shitty-as-in-bad exhibit or performance. Alternatively, a shit show may be an exhibit of excrement.
The original Shit Show may have been a 1964 exhibit in New York’s Gertrude Stein Gallery by two conceptual artists, Sam Goodman and Boris Lurie, who belonged to a movement called No Art. The writer Tom Wolfe described the show as “21 piles of mammal dung” made from extruded plaster of Paris; the New York Times sent a reviewer who allowed, daintily, that “these aggregations of colonic calligraphy contain many formal excellences for anyone whose purist education forces him to perceive them. But the subject matter puts the joke on those who do find formal values in it.”
“In other words, a mockery!” wrote Mike Vuolo in his 2015 Lexicon Valley post. “It’s tempting to think that shit show carried that connotation in 1964, and that Goodman and Lurie intended it as a double-entendre.” (Katherine O’Connor Martin, on the other hand, isn’t so sure: “There are different strands of meaning in play,” she wrote to Vuolo, “but I’m not sure they show a clear evolution over time.”)
More and more, though, a shitshow or shit show lacks any pretensions to artistic merit and is, plain and simple, a hot mess. That’s the meaning implicit in “It Was a Shit Show,” the soaring, “My Way”–esque ballad sung at a pivotal moment in Season 2 of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” a not-shit show that airs on the basic-cable channel the CW during the 9 p.m. prime-time slot.
“A play about pieces of feces/Is what we are together.”
When the episode was originally broadcast, on November 11, 2016, shit (but not show) was bleeped, and the singer’s mouth blurred.