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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Nine circles of hell

For all of its eternal damnation, hell can seem pretty weak when it comes to strong language. Fuck and bitch, say, can rain down some serious fire and brimstone, but hell? Religious-based swears may not bring the same heat they once did in English, but hell still hath a lot of fury if we look at the many ways it bedevils our tongue. From hell yes! to hell-to-the-no, let’s take a tour of some of the linguistic uses—er, circles—of hell. 

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The smeg effect

Smegma.

“Ewww”?

I hope so. Smegma isn’t a very common word, perhaps partly because so many of us are circumcised. But what it names (a cheeselike secretion that accumulates under the foreskin and around the clitoris – it’s also called dick cheese) is disgusting and prurient.

The disgust is something that gets worn off with repeated use, however; words lose their vividness as they become fixed idioms. Here, compare these two: Continue reading