One of the curiosities in the study of offensive language is just how recent are most of the figurative uses of the main obscene words. Though fuck can be found as far back as the fourteenth or fifteenth century (depending on how one chooses to interpret some proper-name evidence), even the most familiar non-sexual expressions are barely more than a century old: fuck you is first recorded in 1905, fucking as an intensifier is from the 1890s, interjectional fuck only from the late 1920s.
Of course, it is entirely possible that such uses were earlier, but not recorded (or discovered). This is the case with most words, but even more so with offensive language, where there are very strong taboos—cultural and often legal—against printing it. The early evidence we have for even the literal senses of such words is sparse, and there were better reasons for these senses to be recorded, not least their use for prurient purposes. And there are many clear indications that these words were in much wider use in speech. The figurative senses are that much less likely to be written down. One place we do find them is in court records, where there is a specific need for recording the precise nature of someone’s language. The earliest known examples of cocksucker (1894), motherfucking (1890), and up shit creek (1868) are all from legal or similar government records.
Any antedating of terms like this is thus a cause for great rejoicing among scholars of the vernacular. Previously, the earliest known example of interjectional shit was from 1865 (in a court-martial record from the Civil War), and there are only two other pre-1900 examples known: an 1874 quotation (from Congressional testimony) in the OED, and a ca1895 quotation in Green’s Dictionary of Slang.
We now have a clear example from a remarkable diary entry from 1844. A few years ago, the Massachusetts Historical Society catalogued the diary of James Thomas Robinson, a lawyer and public official from Massachusetts. Archivist Susan Martin then wrote a delightful description of the diaries on the MHS blog.
Robinson’s diary includes accounts of “a number of salacious peccadillos and sexual experiences”; Martin notes that “his free use of four-letter words is also unusual in 19th-century material”. She quotes at length his wonderful report of his first bout of drunkenness, from May 16, 1844, while a student at Williams College, with his handwriting becoming increasingly illegible. (The next day’s entry, May 17, in much neater handwriting, contains an expression of regret along with a description of his hangover.) It ends with a declaration transcribed as “I dont think much of this heavy drunk after all that is said about it. I dont think tis very pleasant, this allmighty dizziness. I cant seem to write. S**t.”
The blog post contains images of the first page for this day, and of the start of the hangover day, but not the second page, containing the “shit” passage, which I wanted to verify. I was also suspicious of the “S**t” rendering; it would seem unusual for someone fond of explicit sexual narratives to expurgate an offensive word in this manner in a private diary. So I wrote to the MHS to ask for an image of this page.
It turns out that while the “S**t” rendering was a nod to propriety for the public blog post (and, in my strong opinion, this should have been indicated in the post), and there are other small transcriptional issues (“dizziness” is actually written “dizzy-neſ”, with a line-break hyphen and a long-s, for example), the passage is otherwise correct.
James Thomas Robinson diaries, Massachusetts Historical Society
Robinson’s handwriting is indeed terrible in this section, but the words can all be made out. It seems clear from context that the punctuation marks surrounding “shit,” which appear to be commas, are in fact periods.
Thus, this passage is authentic, and pushes our knowledge of interjectional shit from 1865 back to 1844. A historical-dictionary-style citation might be:
1844 J. T. Robinson Diary 16 May (Massachusetts Historical Society MS N-2517): Drunk! Drunk!… I dont think tis very pleasant, this allmighty dizzyness—I cant seem to write. Shit.
I hope someday to be able to examine the rest of the diary to see what other lexical wonders may be found therein.
Thanks to Dr. Steven Jaffe, a historian investigating American obscenity, for calling my attention to this. Thanks to Klara Pokrzywa of the MHS for sending me the actual page image.
This is amazing 😂
Very interesting! A similar case is Dutch *moederneuker*. Often it is said that this Dutch word has been recently introduced as a translation from English *motherfucker*, but in Dutch notariats archives (in which complaints about terms of abuse were noted) *moerneuker* is already mentioned around 1750. See, albeit in Dutch: https://neerlandistiek.nl/2021/05/etymologica-moederneuker/
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