First there was the nothingburger. Now there’s the shitburger.
In a March column for the Wall Street Journal, Ben Zimmer traced nothingburger’s rise from 1950s Hollywood gossip to Capitol Hill politics. But earlier this week, we got a fresh round of nothingburgers when various people in the Trump camp used it—initially—to describe Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Kremlin-connected lawyer during the presidential campaign in June 2016.
That all changed after Jr. tweeted out emails showing just how eager he was to get dirt on Hillary Clinton from Russia in that meeting. Stephen Colbert had fun with this metaphor of the month during an opening monologue Tuesday night: “Yesterday, Reince Priebus said this whole story is a nothingburger. Well, these emails have turned into an all-you-can-prosecute buffet.”
Others reacted with a much more colorful variant: shitburger. Twitter, as ever, dished up some telling examples:
Unlike a nothingburger, between the two buns of a shitburger there is a there there—and it’s, um, well, yeah.
On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, Senate Republicans unveiled their latest efforts to repeal Obamacare this week. Possibly riffing on the recent glut of nothingburgers in the news, Jon Favreau, former speechwriter for Barack Obama and co-host of Pod Save America, has variously taken to calling the bill a shitburger:
With Favreau’s shitburger, we could easily substitute any number of other shit expressions: a pile of shit, a load of shit, a crock of shit, or, as prominently issued by Trump’s own personal attorney in a string of threatening emails to a stranger this week, a piece of shit. For all its political timeliness, Favreau’s shitburger is also rhetorically meaty because it figures the GOP as serving something appetizing for the American public—until they peak under the bun. Or as Favreau called a recent podcast episode: “Same shitburger, different bun.”
This calls up a joke from George Carlin, spiritual father of Strong Language, in his 2004 When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?: “I don’t remember orderin’ anything that smells like this. I believe this is a Shitburger. You know, tastes like a burger, smells like shit.” Aside from its comic rhythm, Carlin’s “you know” might suggest the shitburger is a familiar cultural referent, but the record shows a variety of shitburgers on the lexical menu.
Like Carlin’s, most instances of shitburgers figure actual burgers as shit—and, dismayingly, often literally so. In 2011, a story about a Japanese scientist recycling sewage into food made the rounds, with many running straight to shitburger jokes—except the source of the story, a YouTube video, beat them to the punchline. In one scene, the scientist opens a refrigerator labelled SHIT BURGER next to its equivalent, presumably, in Japanese.
Curiously, the same prank was played back in 1993. “Get ready for the shitburger,” ran the paranormal pages of the Fortean Times in response to news of the supposed Japanese scientist, same name, lab, and everything, repurposing the residual protein in human excrement.
The earliest instance shitburger I found comes in Jeffrey Golden’s 1971 journal Watermelon Summer, which chronicles his 1970 summer spent away from a restless, Vietnam-era Harvard on a collective farm run by black sharecroppers in Georgia. In one scene, he uses it to characterize a crappy restaurant: “We were all pretty unhappy about that, because a highway-side, plasticated shitburger place like that was the safest place anyone could imagine to eat in an integrated group.” A 1972 experimental cookbook, Eat Fast Feast, has a diner cook serving up—or, as it’s suggested, pinching off—a shitburger while a 1979 story, Howling Wolf, has a character producing a real, “well-garnished shitburger” for a friend, complete with all the fixings.
Shitburger brings the laughs in the 1989 baseball comedy Major League when coach Lou Brown (James Gammon) pep-talks his ragtag club:
One part of shitburger’s sweary appeal, as we’ve seen, is how well it lends itself to punny language. Take this political example from John Heileman and Mark Halperin’s 2013 Double Down about the 2012 US presidential election: “The shitburger Romney had been expecting was duly served up by the press, which zeroed in on the special sauce of his Swiss bank account.” Or, in a euphemistic version of the expression, Ted Black, former president of the Buffalo Sabres hockey team, said of his team’s much-mocked new jerseys in 2013: “If it’s a turd burger I’ll have to put it on a bun and eat it.” As Brian Stubits retorted for CBS Sports: “Oh Ted, it’s definitely a turd burger so grab a bottle of ketchup and get ready to chow down.”
Another part is how shitburger plays with other coprophagic language in English. We’re humbled or humiliated if we eat shit, a sense extended to a number of the shitburgers illustrated here. We’re quite angry if we tell off some shit-eater to Eat shit and die! We’re smug if we wear a shit-eating grin—or, as Oxford Dictionaries’ Katherine Connor Martin observed the peculiar euphemism in the Washington Post, a pie-eating grin. And Nancy Friedman sliced shit sandwich, and its older culinary kin shit on a shingle, on Strong Language earlier this year, compelling Ben Zimmer to wonder in an email, “How does a shitburger compare to a shit sandwich? Guess it depends how you define ‘sandwich’…” There’s a food fight you definitely want to stay clear of.
There are other sweary burgers, too. Helen Gurley Brown dubbed unexceptional women mouseburgers, as Friedman noted. South Park satirized people it feels feign Asperger syndrome by having Cartman, who mishears it as Ass Burgers, fake the condition by stuffing his pants with hamburgers. Cuntburger, dickburger and fuckburger have popped up as nonce abuses online. And, almost more head-scratching than offensive, a Westboro Baptist Church protestor fashioned a Bitch Burger on a placard:
Now that’s insult that isn’t just half-baked. It’s a proper shitburger, served extra rare.