Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature

Monday, November 3, 2014

Everyday Speech #3--The 'S' Word in the U.S.



The 'S' word--shit: virtually ubiquitous in U.S. talk. (The rest of the world observes, "We knew all along you were full of it!")

I was reminded of the ubiquity when Carter Monroe, poet, publisher, novelist, and sage, sent me the following list:

Good as shit
Bad as shit
tasty as shit [most amusing]
fast as shit
slow as shit
hard as shit
soft as shit
funny as shit
mad as shit
interesting as shit
boring as shit
smart as shit
stupid as shit

Then there's "I'm tired of this shit" or the working person's generalized complaint, often muttered with a sigh, "Well, . . . shit."

And the universal exclamation of praise: "Great shit!"

And the universal exclamation of dissatisfaction: "Shitty!"

If not an empty signifier, it is at least word that will wear any disguise.

True, other cultures like their shit-words, but most probably don't deploy it as variously as the U.S.

In the 1970s, one heard, "Man, that's some good shit," in re: some of the worst marijuana in the history of humankind. Stems and seeds, as we used to say, back when people apparently smoked stems and seeds. Or so I've heard.

Of course, Freud might have observed something about childhood development and literal shit when examining such a list, and Americans are known for their arrested development (eternal teen-agers, is the rap on us), but there's just no way to prove that kind of speculation. I think it has more to do with Americans' predilection for efficiency in *some* areas of speech, with American coarseness (which even "refined" people like to flaunt so as to project another dimension to their image, or so they think.

When I or anyone else made a hash of something on the construction-job, my father, boss, would occasionally say, "That looks like a mad woman shit." Fantastically colorful expression, so to speak. I don't know why it had to be gendered. That inclination to depict women as mad, perhaps: Sandra Gilbert and others have written about that.

Even when my brothers and I were young lads, the Old Man's parenting style was end mischief as quickly as possible, usually with a direct order: "Knock that shit off" = stop what you're doing. Or "Don't be such a shit-head" or "Don't act like a shit-head to your brother." I responded well to such directives because they were clear, uncluttered, and I didn't get the feeling I was being trained in a broader sense, although "Don't act like a shit-head to [in this case] your brother" does implicitly look forward to shit-head-less days.




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