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.

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“Get your shit together”

For a couple of hours last week, a lot of people in the San Francisco area were under the impression that Bay Area Rapid Transit had, well, lost its shit.

“Get your shit together” from a public agency?

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Sweary links #22

Linguist Geoff Nunberg considers the media’s coverage of the Donald Trump pussy-grab tape: “The word Trump used may not be the most obscene term for a woman’s genital area. But it’s the one that focuses on it in a purely sexual way.” (Also see our own posts on the subject: A Banner Day for Profanity, by Ben Zimmer; Pussy on a Hot Trump Mic, by Copy Curmudgeon; and Watershed Moments: Donald Trump, Rakeyia Scott, and the Times, by Blake Eskin.)

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Speaking of Trumpian vulgarities, Language Log ponders the candidate’s use of “like a bitch.”

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Arnold Zwicky tracks down the history of jackhole: coined by two Los Angeles radio personalities to circumvent Federal Communications Commission language proscriptions.

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(Hat tip: @scarequotes)

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Guest post: Little Samoan potty mouths

Editor’s note: This is an adapted excerpt from What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves, by Benjamin K. Bergen. Copyright © 2016. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, a division of PBG Publishing, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc. 

In the late 1970s, University of California, Los Angeles, anthropologist Elinor Ochs recorded arguably the most surprising discovery ever made about how children acquire their first words, and she did it in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Ochs was conducting research in Samoa, looking at how people there interact and use language. She spent time with locals, observing their daily routines and asking about their experiences. One question she asked mothers was what their child’s first word was. She doubtless expected something along the lines of patterns we’re familiar with from English and many other languages: names of (human or animal) members of the household or other nouns for common objects, like ball or bottle (or, as a British survey found, beer). She probably also expected a lot of variability. While over half of English-speaking kids do produce a name for a caregiver first, the distribution has a long tail.

But when Ochs asked the mothers in the families she was working with about their children’s first words, she got a completely unexpected response. Every single one of them reported the very same word. It did happen to be a noun, but it was a special one, used in a very specific way. It was the word tae, which, as suggested earlier, doesn’t mean “mommy” or “daddy.” It means “shit.” More precisely, it’s an abbreviation of the Samoan expression ‘ai tae, which means “Eat shit.”

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Sweary links #21

Dick Assman, a Canadian gas station owner — yes, Assman the Gasman — has died at 82. He achieved fleeting celebrity in the 1990s when Dave Letterman featured him on the Late Show.

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Our new favorite Twitter account: Swear Trek.

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