For the day that’s in it, here’s a little something on a ‘verbal ejaculation’ attributed to St. Patrick – the fifth century Romano-British* missionary who was later elevated to the rank of patron saint of Ireland. It is to be found in several early medieval hagiographical texts concerning the saint’s activities, and is, allegedly, a corrupted version of a sweary expression he used. Intriguingly, it may actually represent a kernel of truth as the ‘ejaculation’ would appear to be an original Brittonic phrase that was subsequently passed down/corrupted through the medium of Old Irish (Brittonic would have been Patrick’s native language). If so, then there is something refreshingly subversive and endearing in the idea that Old Irish tradition would be interested in, let alone preserve, an ancient earthy expression from the very mouth of its patron saint.
Patrick is said to have uttered the expression at people who were seriously pissing him off. Its earliest appearance is in a 7th century hagiographical text:
O shite and onions! When is this bloody state of affairs going to end? (James Joyce, letter, 1920)
Just as different countries develop distinct dialects, so too do they produce their own conventions of swearing. Ireland has an enthusiastic culture of verbal irreverence, among whose characteristic features are the words feck and shite. Feck is a minced oath whose uses, meanings and origins I’ve explored on my own language blog, Sentence first. Shite is a slightly coarser swear, more at home here on Strong Language.
Shite is often but not always a direct variant of shit in the Hiberno-English profanilect.* It’s also used in Scotland, Australia, and other regional dialects, but my focus here is on usage in Ireland. All the main senses of shit are shared by shite. Like its global relative, shite commonly means nonsense, something rubbish or useless, or plain old excrement. We may talk shit or shite, be full of shit or shite, not give a shit or a shite, do a shit or a shite.
Tom didn’t realise what a nasty wee shite Jason has become. (Niamh Ní Bhaoill, Ros na Rún)
Shite carries a long history, intertwined somewhat with that of shit on account of the older phonetic forms of the latter. The Oxford English Dictionary, which has citations from Larkin, Enright, Hemingway, Amis, and (inevitably and repeatedly) Joyce, says shite:
A few years back, I was visiting with friends who had several boys, the youngest of which was aged three at the time. While I was there, it was decided that Daddy would bring the youngest to work with him for the day. Daddy’s work was a local garage/farm machinery depot, where all sorts of vehicles were bought/sold/brought for fixing. As you might imagine, for a three year old boy – tractors, wheels, tools, hoists, platforms, hammers, mechanics, the works – this equated to three year old heaven.
Off they went for the morning, returning home to his Mammy for lunch. ‘Well’, she said, ‘how did you get on in Daddy’s work?’ ‘Grand’, says the three year old, before rushing out to the back garden to his plastic toy tractor. They watched as he methodically turned it upside down, mimicking the view underneath he had no doubt seen in the garage. He examined it closely, stood back, spat on the ground, gave it a kick and said, in an exasperated voice, “Well, fuck it anyway…’tis bolloxed…”
When I was a child, we had a version of the ‘ip dip rhyme‘ in the school playground. Whenever we needed to divide into groups or isolate someone as the starting ‘it’ for a particular game, we’d gather in a circle with one foot forward. Our version (1980s Ireland) involved someone going around counting each foot whist chanting ‘Ip dip, dog shit, out goes smelly’. Whichever foot was landed on for ‘smelly’ was out, and the counting began again, usually in the opposite direction. It would go on until the last person with a foot in – was ‘(sh)it’.