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There are tales inside tales with scatological etymology

June, 2010

“The fact is, man is an etymological animal. He abhors the vacuum of an unmeaning word. If it seems lifeless, he reads a new soul into it, and often, like an unskillful necromancer, spirits the wrong soul into the wrong body.”

Reverend A. Smythe Palmer, Folk Etymology, 1890

I was reminded of this quote upon receiving this email from an ingenuous reader some months ago asking about the veracity of the following etymology, which he read on the Internet: “In the 16th and 17th centuries, everything had to be transported by ship. It was also before commercial fertilizer’s invention, so large shipments of manure were common. It was shipped dry, because in dry form it weighed a lot less than when wet, but once water hit it, it not only became heavier, but the process of fermentation began again, and produced methane gas. “As the stuff was stored below decks in bundles … methane began to build up and the first time someone came below at night with a lantern, BOOM! Several ships were destroyed in this manner before it was determined just what was happening.

“After that, the bundles of manure were always stamped with the term ‘Ship High In Transit,’ which meant for the sailors to stow it high enough off the lower decks that any water that came into the hold would not touch this volatile cargo and start the production of methane.

“Thus evolved the term ‘S.H.I.T.,’ which has come down through the centuries and is in use to this very day.”

I answered this incredulous inquiry by stating that this etymology had about as much authenticity as saying that the word was an acronym of “Saddam Hussein is Texan.”

The word “shit” was rendered in Old English as shite, which ultimately derives from the Indo-European root skheid, “to divide,” the underlying notion being separation from the body.

One of the unpleasant duties of a word nerd is having the responsibility of destroying someone’s favourite etymological fairy tale.

I’ve had to tell people that, alas, there never existed a Doctor or Colonel Condom of prophylactic fame, nor an unscrupulous 19th-century New York attorney named Scheuster of pettifogging renown, and although there indeed were a 19th-century plumber named Thomas Crapper and a 19th-century profligate American general named Joseph Hooker, the words “crap” and “hooker” pre-dated these gentlemen.

In Devious Derivations, Hugh Rawson says: “People cannot resist making up explanations for the origin of words. Their theories are a reflection of the reluctance to accept uncertainty and to their powers of creativity.” In other words, the facts should never get in the way of a good story.

Acronym contest

Senior Times readers are asked to answer the following question: Which of these acronymic origins is true?

a) “F--k” derives from the expression “fornication under consent of the king,” which arose in the Middle Ages as a way of trying to limit population growth in England.

b) “Cop” is a shortening of “constable on patrol.”

c) “SOS” is a shortening of “save our ships” or “save our souls.”

d) The derogatory term for an Italian “wop” comes from the expression “without papers” and is a reference to the way new arrivals from Italy supposedly entered the United States.

e) “Posh” stands for “port outboard, starboard home.”

f) “Golf” derives from sexist days of yore and stood for gentlemen only, ladies forbidden.

One entry drawn at random with the correct answer will win a copy of my latest book, Strange Bedfellows: The Private Lives of Words.

Email entries to



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