Dear Editors of the Oxford English Dictionary
Time to get your shittle together.
Victorian lexicographers, as you might expect, present almost gingerbreadlike ornamentations upon shit. An 1857 dictionary features shitesticks and shiterags (both meaning a miser) and the delightful "exclamation of contempt" shittletidee, while a 1875 study notes the institution of Shit-Sack-Day, which seems to involve apples. Shit-Sack-Day, by the way, falls on May 29. I trust you will not confuse it with Shitten Saturday, which is another occasion altogether.
Somehow, among all this shit, I discovered a different previous usage of shit-faced—and for us to connect shit to face, the above history does help. Namely, I refer to the 1825 edition of John Jamieson's Dictionary of the Scottish Language. There are some real gems in there—it is a veritable adder full of precious stones—words like to shog, a verb that means "to shake from corpulence."
But in particular, I draw your attention to this entry:
SHIT-FACED, adj. Having a very small face, as a child, Clydes[dale].; q. chit-faced?
Instead of, say, a deeply unfortunate drunken pratfall, this shit-faced may come from the old Scottish fondness for referring to children as little shits; Jamieson's 1818 edition notes just such a "contemptuous designation for a child." One might imagine this usage arising late at night, while stepping on children's toys in the dark. But no—this shit, Jamieson writes, is indeed derived from the kittenish chit.
Chit-faced, in fact, already had a long history. Thomas Dekker's 1622 play The Virgin Martyr includes this complaint: "I stole but a durty pudding, last day, out of an alms-basket, to give my dog, when he was hungry, and the peaking chitfaced page hit me int' teeth with it." There's nothing excremental about it—though, admittedly, it's immediately followed by a line about dropping a turd into a bowl of porridge.
All of which gets us no closer to the notion of drunkenness, but it does show that there's more than one way to get shit-faced in Scotland.
But perhaps you already knew that.
Paul Collins teaches creative writing at Portland State University, and his latest book is The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City and Sparked the Tabloid Wars. Follow him on Twitter.
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