What separates them …

They say that people are separated into two groups: those that admit to swearing and those that lie. This week’s word, shit, is one of the swearwords that a lot of us drop into our conversation when we are in informal situations. We use it when we hurt ourselves. We use it to describe people and things we don’t like, and even, sometimes, use it in its literal sense.

It is highly impolite to use it when we are around people we don’t know well. Nor do we use it in written English. It is one of the most common swear words in the English language. However,  so ingrained are the taboos about its use we don’t often write it down. Taboo words are not acceptable in formal situations and are shunned in polite conversation. Shakespeare, whose work is full of vulgar jokes and puns, avoided using shit completely.

Even in modern times shit has been censored from literature (including Ulysses by James Joyce in the 1920s). It was even excluded from some dictionaries (into the 1970s). In the US it is one of the Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television. That was a concept developed by comedian, George Carlin,  in 1972 in one of his routines. Despite this being 40 years old it still represents the norm on US TV.

Shit is a legitimate word with a long history in English. It comes from the Old English word scitan, which meant split, divide or separate. Through this meaning shit has quite a lot of close relations. The verb shed means to separate from the body, as in shed your skin (the noun shed for a separate building). Schism means to separate a group into factions. Science is derived from the concept of a separate set of knowledge.

One of the more sophisticated synonyms for shit, excrement, comes from exactly the same concept in Latin, excernere, meaning to separate.

There are numerous alternative words for shit but none of them have quite the same power, brevity or preciseness. So we have little choice except to keep using it in the company of people we know well. We also need to hope that we don’t say it in front of television censors, the clergy, or people interviewing us for jobs.