Holy Ish! Euphemisms Aren't As Versatile

A Blog About Language
June 16 2014 3:39 PM

Holy Ish! Euphemisms Aren't As Versatile

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Last week, I wrote about how -ish—as in I'm hungy-ish—has evolved from a lowly suffix into an independent, freestanding word—as in Are you hungry? Yeah, ish, what we might call "approximative ish." Many readers, however, wondered about an altogether different use of ish, as a euphemism for shit, which, depending on your demographic and taste in popular culture, you may or may not have encountered. So let's take a look at that ish

The origin of this other ish is pretty straightforward: if you want to sound like you're saying shit, but not get bleeped out, what better way than to articulate only some of the sounds in the original? This euphemistic ish, which appears in Urban Dictionary in 2001, seems to date from the late 1990s, when it shows up in rap songs and African-American English, and, for that matter, in the lyrics of white rappers emulating African-American English. The earliest example that I can find is from 1999, in "Mancow (Freestyle)" by Eminem, where he uses ish and then proceeds to explain it, suggesting he's not quite confident that his audience will know what it means:

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Cuz we the ish, I said ish backwards and guess what that is...
Shhh, yea I can't say that, yo, hit the playback

Even if we can't pin down its precise origins, ish is a product of the same impetus as various other softened swear words, such as sugar, shoot, frig, fudge, heck, and so on. But curiously, although euphemisms like ish and shoot are coined as substitutes for their more vulgar ancestors, they're actually less versatile. Take ish for example: Can it stand in for all of the meanings that we find in a dictionary definition of shit?

One of the most important functions of a swear word, and not less so for its euphemized counterparts, is as something you can yell after stubbing your toe in the dark. In this respect, shit!, sugar!, and shoot! all qualify, but you'd be unlikely to exclaim ish!, at least not according to the people who replied to my recent Twitter query.

But that isn't to say that an exclamatory ish is entirely out of the question. Back in April of 2012, in a comments thread about Game of Thrones on CNN.com, user Nara noted that the actor Jason Momoa tried out for the role of Khal Drago by performing a haka, a traditional war cry and dance of the Maori. User RavenB replied:

Holy ish, I didn't know he auditioned with a haka!

And similarly, "oh ish" is common on Twitter. For example:

On the other hand, none of the euphemisms that you might shout, like shoot or sugar, work well as substitutes for the ordinary meaning of shit as a noun, whereas ish does, in either a literal or non-literal context. For the literal meaning, here's an example from August of 2012, where in an article on MadameNoire, an online publication aimed at African-American women, IndigoBlack wrote:

I'm not the only person who ever wondered if my ish did or didn't stank

Non-literally, the Internet gossip site theybf.com (The Young, Black, and Fabulous) has an article category called Buy My Ish!, which features posts about celebrities hawking their clothing lines or fragrances. And when a local television affiliate in Tennessee, MyFoxMemphis, posted on Facebook in 2013 that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel had indicated that "U.S. forces are ready to strike Syria if ordered by President Barack Obama," King Ali Ray Redding replied:

That issue belong with that country and shall be handle by its government, simple n plain it ain't got ish to do with us

Of course, shit is also a verb, while the euphemistic meanings of shoot and sugar definitely aren't. What about ish? There aren't as many examples of ish as a verb on Twitter as there are of it as a noun, but @writermya thinks so:

And the last main function of shit is as an adjective, as in "that movie was shit/shitty" or "that was a shitty/shit movie." Can we do this with ish? It's hard to search for specifically, so I'm not sure, but perhaps we can crowdsource this question. What do you think about ish?

Gretchen McCulloch is a linguist and the contributing editor of Slate's Lexicon Valley blog. She has a master's in linguistics from McGill University and blogs daily at All Things Linguistic.