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.
It’s wink-wink-nudge-nudge all the way down with these new ads, one circulating in San Francisco, the others in U.S.-wide distribution.
The San Francisco ad, which I spotted on the side of a Muni bus, is for CUESA, the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture, which operates several huge farmers’ markets each week in San Francisco and Oakland. The ads are meant to persuade shoppers to embrace less-than-supermarket-perfect fruits and vegetables.
On January 8, attendees at the American Dialect Society’s annual meeting, in Washington, D.C., selected they — a “gender-neutral singular pronoun for a known person, as a non-binary identifier” — as the word of the year for 2015.
You can read good arguments for singular they in the blog of Dennis Baron, a professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; and in an explainer that Strong Language contributor Gretchen McCulloch published in The Toast.
But here at Strong Language we’re more interested in the WOTY undercard, which this year was replete with sweary words … and even a naughty emoji. It was, according to our research, the first time in four years that a sweary word made it onto the ballot — assholocracy was voted the “Most Outrageous” word of 2011 — and the first time in ADS history that any variant of fuck was nominated.
Here’s a puzzle: why can’t you say “abso-jesus-lutely”? (Recently brought to my attention by Leland Paul Kusmer.)
Let’s back up for a sec. The classic case of expletive infixation involves “fucking” or “bloody” as in abso-fucking-lutely, abso-bloody-lutely. And one syllable swears can’t infix: there’s no abso-fuck-lutely or abso-shit-lutely. But “Jesus” is two syllables, people swear with it, and it even has the same stress as the other two. Why doesn’t it sound right as an infix?
Shit, it’s fair to say, has happened since the dawn of time and the invention of shit. But the axiomatic acknowledgment “Shit happens” has a relatively short documented history and a long tail of puns, spinoffs, and commercial manipulations. Not to mention one famous fictional origin story.