Since the early 2000’s, there has been a chain e-mail going around that claims to tell the etymology of the English word shit. The e-mail features a cockamamie story that has to do with shipping manure across the ocean and having to dry it out so it doesn’t explode, culminating in an acronym, Store High for Imminent something or whatever, for shit. I didn’t need to consult Snopes.com to realize that this story is a hoax. The truth, of course, is much more interesting, if you’re a linguist like me.

The word shit has been in the English language, and meant the same thing, largely, for hundreds and hundreds of years. In forms ranging from our beloved shit to the Old English scittan, which nobody really knows how to pronounce, the word has graced our language since its formation. Across the Indo-European spectrum, we see versions of shit all over the place: σκατά – ‘skata’ (Greek), Scheißescheisse (German), stront (Dutch), stercus (Latin), सर्जन – sarjana (Sanskrit), skidt (Danish)—you get the idea. Keep in mind that we are going for phonetic variations on the same word here, and I find it not inconceivable that the sounds [st] and [sk] could be easily swapped.

The most interesting part about all of this, however, is this: the theory goes that in Proto-Indo-European, the root *skei meant something along the lines of ‘to diverge, separate’. The idea is more easily recognizable in words like schism, or scissors, which come from the same root as shit. Less obviously, the word science also comes from the same root, through the Latin scire, ‘to know’; the original meaning of scire was probably more along the lines of ‘to distinguish’. The Sanskrit word, सर्जन – sarjana, has multiple meanings, as all Sanskrit words do; this word can also mean ‘to create’ (in the sense of giving up a part of yourself) or ‘to surrender’.

Nice to know so much about what is truly one of the most expressive words in the English language!

I’ve got most of my information from www.etymonline.com, an endlessly fascinating site, if you’d like to take a look.

Next time you use the word shit, remember what it used to mean once upon a time. Make you reconsider using it? Probably not. In fact, for many English speakers, shit is little more than a reflex, like ouch or ow. 

But is it a ‘reflex’, in the natural sense of something universally human, or is it really influenced by language? In Ghana, people say adzei (pronounced like ah-jé) if they trip and fall, not ouch. These seem to be different sounds at first glance, but they do seem to be relatively slight phonetic variations on the same theme, no? The line between expletives and non-linguistic sounds can sometimes be a thin one.

But that is a story for another day. 🙂

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