Ingenious Trifling

Always demand proof, proof is the elementary courtesy that is anyone’s due.
—Paul Valéry, "Monsieur Teste"

The e-mail generally looks like this:

Subject: Fabulous bit of historical knowledge

Ever wonder where the word "shit" comes from. Well here it is:

Certain types of manure used to be transported (as everything was back then) by ship. In dry form it weighs a lot less, but once water (at sea) hit it. It not only became heavier, but the process of fermentation began again, of which a by-product is methane gas.

As the stuff was stored below decks in bundles you can see what could (and did) happen; methane began to build up below decks and the first time someone came below at night with a lantern. BOOOOM!

Several ships were destroyed in this manner before it was discovered what was happening.

After that, the bundles of manure where always stamped with the term "S.H.I.T" on them which meant to the sailors to "Ship High In Transit." In other words, high enough off the lower decks so that any water that came into the hold would not touch this volatile cargo and start the production of methane.

Bet you didn't know that one.

Here I always thought it was a golf term.

This bit of fiction has been traced, in a different form, to a Usenet posting from 1999. That one made reference merely to the smell.

Some correspondents have assured me this explanation is true. Some, even when confronted with the evidence and after admitting the story was impossible, said they were going to keep spreading it, because they liked it. They had rehearsed this little set-piece, and they had told it at the drop of a hat, and they basked in the resulting chuckles.

After all, it's only a harmless set-up for a golf joke. But because it has the look of authentic history, it has begun to circulate as a legitimate etymology.

It has in common with a number of the other most common false etymologies a tendency to derive words from acronyms (The ethnic slur wop is said to represent "without passport," and fuck is variously said to stand for "fornication under consent of king" or "for unlawful carnal knowledge"*).

These fabrications, when anything but clear jokes, are deliberate and audacious lies meant to complicate that which is simple, mislead, and give secret pleasure to the anonymous author of the cleverness. They are the equivalent of a computer virus.

The first and biggest objection is against the reliance on acronyms. Sir Ernest Gowers, in his revisions to the second edition of "Fowler's Modern English Usage" (1965, p.116) traces the rise of the acronym to World War I (e.g. ANZAC; there also was a wound dressing called Bismuth Iodoform Paraffin Paste, which British medical men called Bipp for short). But even then pure acronym was not the usual way of abbreviation. Soldiers, especially the British, seemed to favor the radioman's letter-words; thus to the soldier a trench mortar wasn't a "TeeEmm," but a "toc emma," for the words wireless operators used to indicate those two letters.

Acronyms didn't become a common method of word formation in English until World War II. Loran, a word loosely based on "long-range navigation" dates from 1940, for instance. The word acronym itself wasn't coined until 1943. The lack of a need for such a word suggests the degree to which acronyms previously were not a part of daily life. Their use accelerated with the U.S. space program and the Cold War, and by the time a "Dictionary of Acronyms, Initialisms and Abbreviations" was published in 1960 it had 12,000 entries.

As Gowers illustrates with many examples, modern wars breed acronyms. The American Civil War, the first modern war, produced a vast corpus of correspondence and official papers. But I find scant use of acronyms in them. In the official records, the North's black regiments occasionally are identified as U.S.C.T. (for United States Colored Troops). But these usages did not transpire into the common language of soldiers or civilians, nor is there evidence that people in conversation said "You-ess-cee-tee." (Purists would not call even that an acronym; to them it is an "initialism.") Other Civil War abbreviations, such as ANV for "Army of Northern Virginia," are popular among modern writers but appear nowhere in the Official Records or correspondence.

The insult son of a bitch is recorded from 1707; the abbreviated form SOB is on record only from 1918. POW for prisoner of war was first attested 1919, but it was not popularized until World War II. The initialism A.S.A.P. for as soon as possible is not recorded before 1955, and again it turns up first in military slang.

So acronyms in English are on the whole a 20th century phenomenon. Among those with pre-1900 origins are A.D. and B.C. (both Latin) and P.D.Q. (1870s). The word OK (c.1839) is another rare exception (if the most accepted theory of its origins is the right one), as is n.g. for "no good" (1838). And note how these initialisms, even after more than 170 years, are still "felt" as abbreviations, pronounced as distinct letters, and require no elaborate Internet stories.

Before that, there were "acrostics." Those are words in which each letter in turn is taken as the first letter of another word or name, which taken together hold some significance. An example is the word cabal, which wits noted in 1673 matched the initial letters of the five intriguing ministers of Charles II (Clifford, Arlington, Buckingham, Ashley, and Lauderdale). This was a sort of word-play that had gone on for centuries in verse composition. But cabal was a real word: it had been in print for at least 60 years before someone happened to notice this temporary political connotation. The initials weren't the source of the word, and nobody in the 17th century pretended they were.

What's more, the habit of spuriously discovering acronyms as the "real" source of English words seems to be only as old as the mid-20th century. The well-known fiction that posh is an acronym, for example, seems to have emerged circa 1968. An editorial in "Life" magazine from July 15, 1946, claims the restaurant server's word tip "probably comes from a London coffeehouse custom of two centuries ago when the words "To Insure Promptness" were written on notes to the waiter, with coins attached. Later just the initials T.I.P. were used."

The word shit has a long and well-documented history, far older than any large-scale organized sea-trade in northern Europe. Anglo-Saxon leechdom books use scittan in reference to cattle having diarrhea. A Latin text from 1118 refers to "Lues animalium, quæ Anglice Scitta vocatur, Latine autem fluxus interaneorum dici potest."

There are many examples of the verb from the 14th century [e.g., from 1387: þey wolde ... make hem a pitte ... whan þey wolde schite ...; and whanne þey hadde i-schete þey wolde fille þe pitte agen."]. The noun is attested from the 16th century, both in reference to excrement and to contemptible people.

The acronym theory of the origin of shit can't explain the related words in other languages, such as German Scheiss, Dutch schijt, Old Norse skita, and Lithuanian sikti, which come from the same prehistoric root. As far as I know, there's no corresponding acronym to "ship high in transit" in the merchant marine history of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

Which brings up another point. It's impossible to prove a negative, and I'm not the world's leading expert on shipping, but I have done a great deal of historical research, including detailed examination of ship's manifests going back to the 17th century and studies of trade and tariffs and commerce, and I've never found anyone anywhere shipping manure. People shipped a lot of strange things over long distances (bricks, for instance). But if there's one thing that an all-seeing providence has liberally supplied to every inhabited corner of the globe, it's shit. Who ever transported it often enough that shit-shipping evolved a jargon? Guano -- bird droppings as a source of nitrates -- became an important article of trade in the mid-1800s, but this is much too late for shit, and anyway guano is guano, shit is shit.

A correspondent notes another problem: "I am a sailor. Things go below deck to stay dry ... they don't generally get wet there." Which brings up the kernel of truth at the core of the lie, Methane gas, being lighter than air, would rise and accumulate in an airtight space, such as that under a ship's hatch. And this would be a problem if the gas did not seep out. Coal ships, for instance, did occasionally explode in the manner described, e.g. a letter dated Bishopwearmouth, Aug. 4, 1816, in the "Annals of Philosophy," a scientific journal:

In your Annals, vol. viii. p. 72, an interesting account is given by Dr. Pemberton, of this place, relative to an explosion which occurred on board a brigantine lying in Sunderland harbour; and it was very justly presumed that it was occasioned by the light of a candle coming in contact with a quantity of foul air confined between the decks of the vessel, owing to the hatches being closely fastened down and covered with a tarpaulin.
However, in the scientific writing on such matters no mention ever is made of "shit."

There is at least one case where a ship's destruction was blamed on guano, though the cause was "spontaneous combustion," not lanterns. In "The Chemist," a journal of "chemical discoveries and improvements," from 1845 there is an account of the Ann Story, destroyed near Harborough sand while returning with a cargo of guano. The ship "struck on the sand, and, while beating over, shipped a quantity of water, which, penetrating the cargo, caused almost instantaneous combustion." The crew said it saw smoke and got out just in time. "[S]carcely had they done so when a tremendous explosion of the gas engendered by the partially fired guano, blew the stern out of the vessel, which then filled and sunk in deep water." Again, however, the absence of any mention of a stowing policy or an acronym in such tales tends to discredit, rather than support, the e-mail's claim.

So, the acronym theory for the origin of "shit" breaks down because:

It doesn't fit the facts, it requires a very elaborate supposition for which there is not the slightest evidence, and there is a much simpler, saner explanation for the word, the only drawback of which is that it doesn't make a very good Internet joke.

Say it with me: "shit is not an acronym." Repeat 100 times for every time you forwarded that e-mail. Now go forth and sin no more.

*That phrase, for unlawful carnal knowledge, does, in fact, turn up in certain court reports and legal cases, but not before the late 19th century, far too recent to have been the source of a Middle English word.