If you ever played the video game Duke Nukem, you might remember his signature catchphrase, “I’ve got balls of steel.” This use of balls features widely in the English lexicon, as in:
- big balls
- break my balls
- have (someone) by the balls
So it’s understandable that when you encounter a phrase or idiom with “balls” in it, the cojones are a go-to cognate. But that can lead one astray. Take, for example, “balls to the wall,” meaning to be racing flat-out. This comes to us from aviation, where the throttles are topped with knobs and are pushed fully forward for maximum power.
Ass shows up a lot on Strong Language. We’ve looked at kick ass and my ass, lick-my-ass and assclowns and asshats, among other-ass things – or other ass-things, if you prefer the xkcd hyphenation. (See Language Log for a lit-ass –ass lit review.)
As a suffix, –ass is used to form ‘generally negative (but increasingly positive too) adjectives and occasionally nouns’, notes Green’s Dictionary of Slang. This Janus nature recurs in slang, as in the contradictory shit vs. the shit. And you can’t spell Janus without anus.
A search for ass on GDoS currently yields 137 results, and the main entry for ass (n.) has 184 subentries, with compounds like ass-bucket (‘unpopular or unimportant person’) and expressions like give up the ass (‘accede to seduction’) and up to one’s ass in alligators (‘in very serious troubles’).
Ass, in short, gets around. It’s a seriously productive-ass piece of vocabulary.
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.
Here are some of the things I’ve seen characterized as a shitshow (or a shit show) during the last 115 days:
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:
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.