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 fiction has been traced, in a different form, to a Usenet posting from 1999. That one made reference merely to the smell.
Some correspondents assure me this explanation is true. Some, even when seeing the evidence and admitting the story to be impossible, say they're going to keep telling it, because they like it. They had rehearsed this little set-piece, and they told it at the drop of a hat, and they basked in the chuckles. After all, it's only a harmless set-up for a golf joke.
But because it has an authentic look in a gullible age, it circulates as a legitimate etymology. It has something in common with a number of the other 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 acts of intellectual vandalism. They play on the human tendency to prefer a good story to a dull fact, and they are the equivalent of a computer virus.
The first and biggest objection to acronymic origins of old words is chronology. 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: ANZAC for "Australian and New Zealand Army Corps;" Enzed for "New Zealand." There also was a wound dressing called Bismuth Iodoform Paraffin Paste, which British medical men called Bipp for short.
But even in the Great War a pure acronym -- with the letters of the abbreviation pronounced as a word -- was not usual. AWOL for "absent without leave" is attested by 1917, but according to the "Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage" (1957) it was pronounced as four letters in World War I and was not sounded as a word until World War II. Soldiers, especially the British, seemed to favor the radioman's letter-words. To the soldier a trench mortar was abbreviated to "T.M.," but it wasn't *Tee Emm. It was toc emma, from the words wireless operators used to indicate those two letters.
The big boost in the use of acronyms in English comes with World War II. Loran, a word loosely based on "long-range navigation" dates from 1940 and was among the earliest; another was radar (1941), which, like loran, is inexact ("radio detecting and ranging"). Amgot for Allied Military Government of Occupied Territory dates from 1943 in Sicily.
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. After World War II, the habit was ingrained. The use of acronyms accelerated with the U.S. space program and the bureaucracy and technology of the Cold War, and by the time a "Dictionary of Acronyms, Initialisms and Abbreviations" was published in 1960 it had 12,000 entries.
The American Civil War, in many ways the first modern war, produced a vast corpus of correspondence and official papers. Yet 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, and there is no evidence that people in conversation said "You-ess-cee-tee" (purists would not call even that an acronym; to them it is an "initialism"), much less *uscut or some such thing. 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.
So acronyms in English are on the whole a 20th-century phenomenon. Among the abbreviations that functioned as words before 1900 origins are A.D. and B.C. (both Latin) and P.D.Q. (1870s). The word OK (c. 1839) is another example (if the most accepted theory of its origins is the right one), as is n.g. for "no good" (1838). But these initialisms, even after more than 170 years, are still "felt" as abbreviations, pronounced as distinct letters, and require no elaborate Internet stories.
The raw material of acronyms was present in the language. There were acrostics -- short poems in which the initial letters of the lines, taken in order, spell a word or phrase. The educated had made a sport of the word cabal, which wits in 1673 noted aligned with the initial letters of the names of the five intriguing ministers of Charles II (Clifford, Arlington, Buckingham, Ashley, and Lauderdale). But cabal was a real word: it had been in print in English for at least 60 years before someone happened to notice this convergence with contemporary politics. The initials weren't the source of the word, and nobody in the 17th century pretended they were.
The habit of spuriously discovering acronyms as the "real" source of English words seems to be only as old as the late 19th century. Frederick W. Hackwood's 1909 book "Inns, Ales and Drinking Customs of Old England" claims the restaurant server's word tip comes from a mid-18th century custom and stands for "To Insure Promptitude." A reviewer of the book in the "Athenaeum" of Oct. 2, 1909, wrote, "We deprecate the careless repetition of popular etymologies such as the notion that 'tip' originated from an abbreviated inscription on a box placed on the sideboard in old coaching-inns ...." Nonetheless, the fable persists (since 1946 often altered to "to insure promptness"). Most are post-World War II. The oft-repeated fiction that posh is an acronym, for example, seems to have emerged circa 1968. The wop story is no older than the 1960s; the golf acronym story is from the 1990s.
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 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.
It's impossible to prove a negative, and I'm not the world's leading expert on shipping, but I have done a 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:
1. the word itself is a good 1,000 years older than the common use of acronyms;
2. the original form of the word (Old English sc-, which regularly evolved into Middle English sh-) does not correspond to the supposed acronym;
3. the verb is the original form, the noun derives from it; the acronym supposes the noun came first;
4. no one has produced a single instance of this supposed acronym from any old mercantile record or ship's manifest;
5. in fact, no one has ever established that there was a custom of shipping manure;
6. the word has cognates in many other languages, including ones outside Germanic, for which no acronym theory of origin makes sense;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.
*That phrase, for unlawful carnal knowledge, does turn up in certain court reports and legal cases, but not before the late 19th century, making it far too recent to have been the source of a Middle English word.