Dan Snow has just been on the television, talking about filth in mediaeval London. I found it quite interesting (because I’m quite interested in filth in mediaeval London), but I was dissatisfied with his repeated use of the word ‘poo’, when what he in fact meant was…
Superseding dial. shite, OE scitan, pp sciten = Middle Low German schiten Dutch schijten Old High German skizan German scheissen, Old Norse skita; from Germanic *skít- *skit’ (whence OE ‘scitol’ purgative, ‘scitte’ diarrhoea)
Everyone knows that Old English dirty words are more satisfying and evocative than Latinate euphemisms (and certainly than juvenalities like poo), and everyone ought to agree that, in the all-in cockfight of full and frank four-letter words that OE has left us with, ‘shit’ (in its literal sense in particular) is the king of the dunghill.
The word may actually be more graphic than it seems. CT Onions suggests that it comes from the Indo-European skheid, meaning split or divide. Anthony Burgess, in A Mouthful Of Air (1993), elaborates unnecessarily: “The action of excreting induces the sensation of a forcible division of the fundament.”
It’s a matter of regret that the word doesn’t have the literature it deserves. There’s Chaucer, and his “shitten shepherd and clean sheep”, which is all right, I suppose – and the OED suggests Sir Patrick Hume of Polwarth’s frankly mystifying “fond flytter, shit shytter” (this was the context of The Flyting of Montgomerie and Polwarth (c.1583) “a ritualized verse slanging match of about 700 lines between Polwarth and Alexander Montgomerie… Flytings required considerable skill in verse manipulation, and a huge vocabulary of obscene and vulgar words, together with the wit to make them sting.” (thanks to the DNB)) – and I’m delighted to find Joyce coining the ejaculation “Oh shite and onions!” in 1920 (thanks to Word Origins), although I’m not fond of the e-on-the-end form (and indeed in the OED it carries the dreaded dead hand of joc.) –
– but beyond that lot, I’m stumped.
If only there was a word to express my dismay.
UPDATE!: this ought to have occurred to me earlier, but I just sauntered over to the unutterably great Pepys’ Diary Online, and (as one does) had a look around for my favourite swear-word. It turns out that Pepys, fat lech though he may have been, was a master of it. I reckon he could have had Sir Patrick Hume of Polwarth in a flyting any day of the week.
July 19, 1667…news come the other day so fast, of the Dutch fleets being in so many places, that Sir W. Batten at table cried, “By God,” says he, “I think the Devil shits Dutchmen.” [I know, technically not Pepys’ own, but that’s just for starters].
April 1, 1667… borrowing everything of neighbours is a most shitten thing.
July 15, 1666… I was in mighty pain all night long of the winde griping of my belly and making of me shit often and vomit too, which is a thing not usual with me, but this I impute to the milke that I drank after so much beer.
April 30, 1666… At night home and up to the leads, but were contrary to expectation driven down again with a stinke by Sir W. Pen’s shying of a shitten pot in their house of office close by, which do trouble me for fear it do hereafter annoy me. So down to sing a little and then to bed.
This one is my favourite. It would be my favourite even if it didn’t have a dirty word in it.
September 28, 1665… feeling for a chamber-pott, there was none… so I was forced in this strange house to rise and shit in the chimney twice; and so to bed and was very well again.
Good for you, Samuel. And hurrah for Phil Gyford and his wise elves at Pepys’ Diary.