Dear Editors of the Oxford English Dictionary
Time to get your shittle together.
Some years ago, Slate contributor Paul Collins became curious about the history of the word bonkers. After a letter to the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary, its etymology was updated. Herewith, a sequel.
Dear Editors of the Oxford English Dictionary,
In my more hopeful moments, I like to think that drunken frat brothers everywhere are quoting Beat poetry to each other. It would be a fine vindication of our educational system. And it seems to be the implication of the definition of shit-faced—which, along with the other shit compound words, lives in the OED between shish-kebab and shiv.
Right now you attribute the term's first use to Allen Ginsberg:
shit-faced, adj. orig. U.S. (a) contemptible; ugly.... (b) intoxicated with alcohol or drugs; spec. extremely drunk. 1961 A. GINSBERG, Empty Mirror 19 "Why, you *shit-faced fool!"
It's a satisfying usage, but 1961 seems a bit late to me. And sure enough, delving into the wonderful 1948 linguistic study "North Texas Agricultural College Slang" reveals this earlier use: "S.F.C., n., An undesirable person. From shit-faced Charley."
The authors note that the students of the school, now the University of Texas at Arlington, were primarily WWII veterans. Charley had not yet come to mean Vietcong, but there's still a hint of military slang in the acronym itself. S.F.C., after all, can also stand for Sergeant First Class. So I think we might suspect the involvement of an officer named Charles—perhaps in the vicinity of Texas.
But why shit? And why on the face?
Shit's rich history reaches back to Old Norse skita, and by Chaucer's time a romance like Kyng Alisaunder could speak of wondrous snakes in the exotic East, where "the addres shiteth preciouse stones." A 1641 treatise addresses a braggart as "thou cracking shit-fire," and one 1766 dictionary entertainingly lists everything from shit-abed and shit-breech to shittenly and shittle-come-shites. Personally, I'd like to see that last one make a comeback.
Actually, the shittle in shittle-come-shites hints at a complication, because while shites is pretty much what you'd think, shittle is not. Shit history is full false cognates like shittle—which proves to be related to shuttle, in the sense of inconstancy. That's why a 1448 letter-writer could worry that "I am aferd that Jon of Sparham is so schyttyl wyttyd." The same root later meant you could play badminton with a shittlecock. (This 1797 report of a Chinese "game of shittlecock... [played] with the sole of the foot" appears to be an early description of hacky-sack.) Even more shit gets slung around by chit, from the same root as kit or kitten—while another derivation from to shut accounts for a c. 1415 sermon's curious exhortation to "shitt þe gates of heven."
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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