Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Etymological Mythology, And A Tale Of Shit

This post covers a few things I really like: Etymology, urban legend, learning about crap on the Internet instead of sleeping, and saying the word "shit" a lot.

Yesterday, I received the following e-mail forward concerning the origins of the word "shit."

Happy shit ship!
Manure : In the 16th and 17th centuries, everything had to be transported by ship and it was also before the invention of commercial fertilizers, so large shipments of manure were quite common.

It was shipped dry, because in dry form it weighed a lot less than when wet, but once water (at sea) hit it, not only did it become heavier, but the process of fermentation began again, of which a by product is methane gas of course.. As the stuff was stored below decks in bundles you can see what could (and did) happen. Methane began to build up below decks and the first time someone came below at night with a lantern, BOOM!
Sad shit ship.

Several ships were destroyed in this manner before it was determined just what was happening

After that, the bundles of manure were always stamped with the instruction ' Stow high in transit ' on them, which meant for the sailors to stow it high enough off the lower decks so that any water that came into the hold would not touch this volatile cargo and start the production of methane.

Thus evolved the term ' S.H.I.T ' , (Stow High In Transit) which has come down through the centuries and is in use to this very day.

Isn't that a good story? I desperately wanted it to be true but my Junior Linguist Spider Sense suggested I check Snopes, because they always know about e-mail forwards. Here's what they had to say about shit:

This is shit.
"The word shit entered the modern English language via having been derived from the Old English nouns scite and the Middle Low German schite, both meaning "dung," and the Old English noun scitte, meaning "diarrhea." Our most treasured cuss word has been with us a long time, showing up in written works both as a noun and as a verb as far back as the 14th century.

Scite can trace its roots back to the proto-Germanic root skit-, which brought us the German scheisse, Dutch schijten, Swedish skita, and Danish skide. Skit- comes from the Indo-European root skheid- for "split, divide, separate," thus shit is distantly related to schism and schist." 

Complete dork that I am, I liked the second explanation better, even though it didn't come with animated gifs. Coolly enough, it also explains where we get scat (the one meaning animal droppings, not the one people in the old days said to cats and children, and not the one meaning the thing Ella Fitzgerald and Cab Calloway did so well) and scatological.

Which is totally what this post is. Hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.


Nick Krabbenhoeft said...

You might be happy to know then that acronyms invented to give a false etymology of a word are a kind of backronym. See For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge for the other famous one.

Stranger said...

I am *extremely* happy to know that, thanks!

Jerry said...

A common expression used in Scotland when we have diarrhea is we have a dose of the "skitters".

Needless to say I will use this information on the origins of the word to boost my already copious collection of useless information (trivia to be PC)

Jack Scott said...

Fascinating. Really, it is.

Stranger said...

Ah, shit. It never fails to amuse.

agent L said...

Love this post. First thing I did when I got my OED was look up the etymologies of all the dirty words.