The new movie Only the Brave tells the true story of a group of firefighters who battled a deadly wildfire in Arizona in 2013. In his review in the Village Voice, Bilge Ebiri writes that “much of the dialogue in Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer’s script works at that level of earnest, tough-guy poetry, like a fortune cookie you might find in a vat of Skoal dipping tobacco.” One example Ebiri gives of this tough-guy poetry: “I know you guys are looking for sympathy, but the only place you’re gonna find it is in the dictionary, somewhere between ‘shit’ and ‘syphilis.'”
The GQ article on which the movie is based doesn’t have that specific line, though it does quote some other rough-and-tumble language from Brendan McDonough (aka “Donut”), a young member of the 20-man hotshot fire crew (played by Miles Teller in the film). “The reason we’re so close is you’re fucking put through some shit,” Donut says. But the “shit and syphilis” line is certainly something you could imagine coming out of the mouth of a hardened firefighter. In fact, it’s got a pedigree going back to World War II, with less obscene variations dating back to the nineteenth century.
Fans of the 1995 film Major Payne, in which Damon Wayans plays the titular Marine, will recall the line, “You’ll get no sympathy from me! You want sympathy, look in the dictionary between shit and syphilis!”
The saying has often appeared as a military admonishment. When it came up on the American Dialect Society mailing list in 2015, Jonathan Lighter remembered hearing it being used by a U.S. veteran interviewed on the World War II miniseries “The World at War,” which was first broadcast in the UK in 1973-74 and then syndicated in the US in 1975. (“It was the first ‘shit’ I’d ever heard on TV,” Lighter recalled.) A commenter on English Language & Usage Stack Exchange also noticed it in “The World at War.”
I managed to track down the interview in question: it appears in the final episode of the series, titled “Remember” (first broadcast on ITV on May 8, 1974). Herman Pfeffer, identified as a disabled U.S. veteran, says:
We had this orthopod, or orthopaedic surgeon, from Baltimore, and, uh, he gave me the definition that I’ve used all these many years of sympathy for the disability. He said, “Son, you know where you find sympathy?” He said, “You find it in the dictionary between shit and syphilis.” And I’ve remembered that all these many years.
While the saying may have been circulating during World War II, it was too obscene for print until the late 1960s. Here are the earliest examples I’ve found:
I didn’t have to look in the dictionary between shit and syphilis for sympathy so long as he was available.
—Hal Travers (pseudonym for Gerald B. Lorentz), Voyage Sixty-Nine, 1967
In a sudden hush, the cameras begin to roll, but Cybill blows the take by missing her mark parking the convertible. When she stammers out an apology, the sound mixer stage-whispers gruffly: “Sympathy can be found in the dictionary between shit and syphilis, sister.”
—Grover Lewis, “Splendor in the Short Grass: The Making of the Last Picture Show,” Rolling Stone, Sept. 2, 1971 (reprinted in Splendor in the Short Grass: The Grover Lewis Reader, 2005)
There is a saying on the rails: “You find sympathy between shit and syphilis in the dictionary.”
—Tracy Kidder and Michael Mathers, “Hobo Convention,” Audience, Vol. 1, No. 5, Sept.-Oct. 1971
If, as the final example suggests, this is an old hobo saying, then it could go back well before World War II. Regardless of how old the “shit and syphilis” version is, the whole idea of looking for sympathy in the dictionary is part of a venerable tradition. It shares a family resemblance with some other dictionary sayings collected by Garson O’Toole on his Quote Investigator site: “Duty comes before pleasure, but only in the dictionary” (dated to 1912), and “The dictionary is the only place where success comes before work” (dated to 1935). In the latter case, O’Toole notes that there are precursor statements from the mid-’20s of the form, “One way to find success without working for it is to look it up in the dictionary.” Looking up sympathy in the dictionary (because it can’t be found in real life) is an even older suggestion. Examples:
“My brudders,” said a waggish colored man to a crowd, “in all affliction, in all ob your troubles, dar is one place you can always find sympathy.” “Whar? whar?” shouted several. “In the dictionary,” he replied, rolling his eyes toward the sky.
—The Hub (New York), Aug. 1, 1880, p. 222
The aspirant to stage honors finds “sympathy” in the dictionary but never elsewhere.
—Chicago Daily Tribune, Oct. 11, 1891, p. 27
Justice [Charles Fraser] MacLean in the [New York] Supreme Court yesterday said that the courts were no place to look for sympathy, and that the dictionary was the only place it could be found.
—New York Times, Mar. 21, 1901, p. 3
“Do you sympathize with me, Sir,” said Mr. [Thomas Brackett] Reed, with the twinkle in his eye, which used to mean danger to presumptive Congressmen. “You must not sympathize with any one. It is out of style, and the only place you can find sympathy now is in the dictionary.”
—New York Times, Dec. 1, 1901, Sunday Magazine, p. 1
Where in trouble can you always find sympathy? In the dictionary.
—Boston Daily Globe, Feb. 9, 1903, p. 10
Interestingly enough, the “sympathy in the dictionary” joke found its way into German as well, making an appearance in a footnote to Sigmund Freud’s Der Witz und seine Beziehung zum Unbewußten (Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious). The following appears in the second edition of the book, published in 1912:
In anderer Richtung weichen vom Witz die sogenannten „Scherzfragen“ ab, die sich sonst der besten Techniken bedienen mögen. Ein Beispiel einer Scherzfrage mit Verschiebungstechnik ist folgendes: Was ist ein Kannibale, der seinen Vater und seine Mutter aufgefressen hat? — Antwort: Waise. — Und wenn er alle seine anderen Verwandten mit dazu gefressen hat? — Universalerbe. — Und wo findet solch ein Scheusal noch Sympathie? — Im Konversationslexikon unter S. Die Scherzfragen sind darum keine vollen Witze, weil die geforderten witzigen Antworten nicht wie die Anspielungen, Auslassungen u.s.w. des Witzes erraten werden können.
The so-called “facetious questions” which may make use of the best techniques deviate from wit in other ways. An example of the facetious question with displacement is the following: “What is a cannibal who devours his father and mother?—Answer: An orphan.—And when he has devoured all his other relatives?—Sole-heir.—And where can such a monster ever find sympathy?—In the dictionary under S.” The facetious questions are not full witticisms because the required witty answers cannot be guessed like the allusions, omissions, etc., of wit. (1916 translation by A.A. Brill)
Getting back to the “shit and syphilis” version, less sweary variations sometimes replace shit with another word, such as sin:
“If I want sympathy, brother,” he said in a lower voice, “I can find it where I’ve always found it— in the dictionary, between ‘sin’ and ‘syphilis’!”
—George Henry Johnston, Closer to the Sun, 1961, p. 154
If you’re looking for sympathy, Hap, you can find it in the dictionary between stupid and syphilis!
—Chip Martin, The End of the Road: An Anglo-Californian Romance, 2002, p. 17
[Orange] County lobbyist Ted Craig said the county is viewed by other members of the State Legislature as the “poor little rich boy.”
“Everytime I go looking for sympathy, I get told, ‘You can find it in the dictionary between suicide and syphilis,'” he said.
—Los Angeles Times, Dec. 18, 1976, San Fernando Valley supplement, p. 9
I remember we used to have a saying in our outfit: “If you’re looking for sympathy. you’ll find it in the dictionary between suicide and syphilis.”
—James Megellas, All the Way to Berlin: A Paratrooper at War in Europe, 2007, p. 298
In some versions, suicide instead replaces syphilis (the first example below euphemizes shit as shoot):
“If you’re looking for sympathy you can try to find it in the dictionary between shoot and suicide.” —Attributed to a U.S. Marine Corps Drill Instructor.
—La Crosse (Wisc.) Tribune, Jan. 19, 1967, p. 8
If you’re looking for sympathy
You’ll find it in the dictionary
Between shit and suicide
(card, Indianapolis, 1976)
—Alan Dundes and Carl R. Pagter, When You’re Up to Your Ass in Alligators: More Urban Folklore from the Paperwork Empire, 1987, p. 54
This is where a tremendous jealousy factor came into play for me. But that old saying “You can’t find sympathy in the dictionary between shit and suicide” kept playing in my head over and over that night every time I thought about the situation.
—Rowdy Roddy Piper, In the Pit with Piper, 2002, p. 143
Sentiment takes the place of sympathy in this example:
As one platoon sergeant put it, “Sentiment is a word in the dictionary somewhere between shit and suicide.”
—Arthur G. Neal, National Trauma and Collective Memory: Extraordinary Events in the American Experience, 2005
But, um, here’s the thing. In any dictionary that abides by the usual standards of alphabetization, sympathy most certainly cannot be found between shit (or shoot) and suicide. And good luck finding sentiment in that alphabetic range either. I mean, talk about adding insult to injury! Not only is sympathy nowhere to be found in your personal life, but you’re also given inaccurate instructions on where to find it in a dictionary. Life can be unfair sometimes.
Update: Participants on the American Dialect Society mailing list have been coming up with all sorts of interesting historical citations. Garson O’Toole uncovered an even earlier example of the “sympathy in the dictionary” quip, taking it back to 1868.
Since the first two or three days nearly all have been well, and never was there a company more social, more kind or considerate. The old negro preacher who said, “If you want to find sympathy look in the dictionary for it,” could never have been to sea. Here all sympathize with the sufferers, and help to contribute to their relief and comfort.
—Watchman & Reflector (Boston, Mass.), Aug. 13, 1868, p. 5
And this 1951 example, found by Bill Mullins, gives some very specific instructions about where to find sympathy.
There are a few wives, however, who also had a tough day and tell their tired mates if they want sympathy to look in the dictionary between symmetry and symphonic.
—(Little Rock) Arkansas Democrat, Mar. 11, 1951, p. 6B