Sunday, January 28, 2007

scatological adjectives

If you don't like "naughty" words, please skip this post.

American visitors to the UK enjoy taking in the culture while they're here, and on Ben Zimmer's (of Language Log) most recent trip, he took in the controversies of this year's Celebrity Big Brother. For those of you who are in another country (for you can't avoid the news of it here), a woman who is a celebrity only for having lost a previous Big Brother got into trouble on CBB for alleged racist bullying of another celebrity. (I say 'alleged' because I haven't seen it myself, so shouldn't have an opinion on the matter.) She's quoted in the papers as having said I feel shit.

What she's done here is to use shit as an adjective. (Unless, of course, she was intending to say that she habitually handles f(a)eces. I really don't think she meant that.) Shit (or shite) and crap are found in the various places one finds adjectives in English--as in:
  1. I feel shit.
  2. ....remember how shit you feel now for future refernece [sic] and make sure you don't do it again! (University of the West of England student forum)
  3. I am having a shit day. (mildlydiverting.blogspot.com)

Now, this is not unheard of in AmE (as noted by Arnold Zwicky on the American Dialect Society list some time ago), but more typical AmE is to use shitty (or crappy) when one needs an adjective--or to use different grammatical constructions (as in 4b) in order to work around the nouniness of shit:
4. a. I feel shitty. b. I feel like shit.
5. remember how shitty you feel now
6. I'm having a shitty day
Which is not to say that people don't say shitty in BrE too. The OED records the attributive (adjectival) use of shit first in Hunter Davies' 1968 book The Beatles. Shitty is first recorded in a 1924 letter by Ernest Hemingway.

This is ignoring, of course, the use of shit as a term of appreciation (as in it's the shit or shit dope and all that). That's always shit, not shitty, but it's also not what I'm talking about.

On shit versus BrE shite (rhymes with bite), the OED says that "The form shite now chiefly occurs as an occasional jocular or quasi-euphemistic variant." But most southern English people will tell you that shite is a northern and Scottish variant. I don't know what the Northerners and Scots say about it.

21 comments:

AllieTheKiwi said...

I Have It In for turning words into adjectives. But I probably do it all the time myself. *grin*

I always thought shite was Irish - at least my use of it comes from my irish father. My scottish mother never says it, but then she's too naice to say Words Like That and shit is firmly off the vocab, too. Do you happen to know if the word 'shite' went to Ireland from Scotland (e.g. with all those protestant settlers sent to outbreed the catholic rabble), or did it appear by chance in both places?

John Cowan said...

Shite is the original verbal form (the noun shit is derived from the verb) and is purely English in origin, although now lost in the dialects leading to Standard British English, and preserved mostly in other English-speaking communities. My father, who was born in 1904 and grew up in an Hiberno-English-speaking enclave in Philadelpha, habitually used it. Its vowel reflects the original long vowel in Old English; compare Dutch schijten and German scheißen.

Shit (compare German schiß) was the original past tense of the verb. The modern past tense form shat is not historical and almost certainly results from analogy with sit, sat.

Jangari said...

I find it most natural to say I feel like shit rather than using shit directly as an adjective.

As an aside, there is a peculiar construction in AusE in which the verb to shit is taken to be a reciprocal of to hate. So:

I hate this restaurant

is propositionally equivalent to

this restaurant shits me

I suspect this derives by re-lexification from an (almost idiomatic) complex predicate use such as this restaurant gives me the shits, but I have absolutely no evidence for that. It's merely an intuition. It is very interesting though, given that there are so few truly reciprocal verb pairs in English (where x V¹ y = y V² x). In fact I can't even think of a single other example.

David Malone said...

To me, shite has a definite Irish sound, it is certainly very common here. It's also slightly less strong than shit, much like when Ms. Doyle says "... and the f-word father - not feck - the bad f-word" (in Father Ted).

I also seem to have a slight difference between "shit" and "shitty" as adjectives. The latter seems more literal, maybe because of the expression "beat them off with a shitty stick"? The former seems to more often mean bad, as in the book title "is it just me or is everything shit?"

lynneguist said...

In your last example, David M, I'd say that shit is being used as a noun--though it could arguably be an adjective as well. If it's an adjective, then you could modify it by saying everything is extremely shit (or some such thing) or everything is more shit than it was last year. Reading everything is shit as a noun is ok in any dialect, but using shit with intensifiers like extremely or fairly or using it comparatively (without a like in there) only sounds right if you speak a shit-as-adjective dialect.

Sorry, should have said "or Irish" when saying what shite sounds like to a Southern Englishperson (though one hears more Northerners and Scots around here, methinks).

Lowell said...

My immediate reaction was that I tend to use shit as an adjective all the time, and did even more living in England.

But actually thinking about it, I'm not really sure. I know I used shite in High School because there was some sort of fad so everyone used it as the cool alternative or something like that. I think that may have transfered itself to my using shit as an adjective after the fad for shite died down. Shitty sounds weird to me now, but I don't know if it did then.

Greg Fleming said...

A (southern) British friend told me once that "shite" sounds more informal to her ear than "shit", and is therefore less derogatory, more jocular. I speculate wildly that this might have to do with a) the perception of "shite" as being an Irish/Scottish/Northern English usage, or b) the clipped vowel and sharp consonant of "shit" sound more like upper-class English than the softer-sounding "shite".

Rebecca said...

This Northerner will tell you that 'shit' isn't tolerated by my mother when it comes out of my mouth, but 'shite' is. And that my husband's Durham family start saying 'shite' at approximately 10 years old - particularly in the phrase 'Hadaway and shite!' which means 'Oh please! You jest!'

Ken Broadhurst said...

I understand that the origins of the term are under discussion, but shite to me sounds like an attenuated form of the term shit, as darn or heck are attenuated forms of damn or hell.

steve said...

Shite is heard in West Yorkshire - a term of abuse my grandfather used was to call someone a "shitehawk" although goodness knows where that comes from.
And then there's "gobshite", of course.

Cameron said...

wgqbnwnpWell, it seems to me that "shite" is Scottish/Irish/northeastern English, in no particular order, and also that it is just a vastly superior swear word to "shit." You can really get your mouth round it (hmmm, getting the mouth round shit...) and your body behind it as you yell it across the pub (or wherever), you can really FEEL it, much more so than the relatively feeble-vowelled "shit." I used to drink with a Canadian (while I was living in Paisley) who had Scottish parents and thought "shite" was such a wonderful word that he took it upon himself to take it back to Canada and be a missionary for it. He reported that all his friends there loved it and promptly began to use it.

Up here, we also have a tendency to say "pish" rather than "piss" (except in "piss off"). Perhaps because that's how it emerges if you say it while pished.

Anonymous said...

I guess you mean someone handling f(a)eces :-)

lynneguist said...

Well-spotted, thanks. I'm going to change it in the post now.

It's just occurred to me that writing about shit has probably resulted in this site being banned from a lot of school and library internet access points. :(

Aonghus said...

"Shite" is definitely more commonly used in Irish speech than in UK speech. There is also a sense in which it is perceived as less offensive.

John Cowan said...

I asked a BrE-speaking linguist once about shit versus shitty as adjectives in his own usage, and he said that shit was simply derogatory, whereas shitty was either literal or, at most, metaphorical with a strong flavor of literalness.

For example, he would routinely characterize a student's paper as a shit paper, but to call it a shitty paper would imply that it was as bad as if it were actually smeared with shit, and as such an over-the-top judgment.

Two other points: I think some of the appeal of shite is that many people prefer to swear in foreign languages or dialects: they are more expressive, and you may be able to get away with more. When I was a teen in the U.S. in the early 70s, I could say bloody without anyone taking much notice in situations where goddamn, the approximate native equivalent, would have gotten me into trouble.

Lastly, there are people who will say Shit! freely, but draw the line at using shit for excrement, and so come out with things like Shit, I just stepped in some dog poo[p]. I always thought that was curious.

Gordon said...

To my (British and Australian) ear, `shitty' can mean `bad-tempered'. As in: `My wife is in a shitty mood.' or : `My boss is being shitty to me.' So `a shitty paper' could well be a paper that was strongly (maybe unfairly) critical of a subject.
Gordon Gribbin

Billy said...

I'm from the north (Aberdeen, North-East Scotland) but of course I don't know which things I say or hear are exclusively from there nor how far their usage spreads. One usage we have at least up there is the phrase shite it meaning to 'chicken out'. You'll find it in the title of the story 'Druids shite it fail to show' about a gang of soccer casuals heading up to the site of some standing stones in the excellent collection 'A Bucket of Tongues by the genius Duncan McLean.

B-)

KenS said...

I'm from Glasgow originally, and I would say that shit was the actual substance, but the adjective was generally shite. And re. John Cowan, the past tense was shat. Now I live in Romford, E. London and shit is the past tense, without exception. "I shit myself when you leapt out from behind that wall". I always thought this was a wrong usage, but now see differently.

darcherd said...

My wife uses "shit" in a form I haven't seen referenced here, to wit, "You're being a shit." I found the indefinite-article form charming enough to have picked it up in my own vocabulary. As to the origin of that form, I'm not sure. She originally hails from Texas in the US but it doesn't sound like a Texanism. However, she also reads a lot of British novels and so she might have picked it up that way - it sounds more like a Britishism to my ear.

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Iain Mac Eochagáin said...

In Ireland we can use both "shit" and "shite" as a noun ("I've stepped in some dog shit(e)!") an adjective ("It was a shit(e) film"). In these cases it can really be either.

I'd say where "shite" really comes into its own is with the verb "talk" (the Irish forté): "He was just talking shite." "Sure that was just pure shite-talk, he didn't mean a bit of it." I.e.: insincere, deliberate lying, bullshit. It would sound strange to use "shit" in these contexts (although, of course, more and more one kids and teens do day " talk shit about someone", that is, slander, but this is from American TV I suspect). Hence the word "gobshite", which is an interesting one because the "mouth" component comes first, unlike other English compounds such as "loudmouth" and "blabbermouth".