shit

It is commonly believed that our so-called “four-letter words” are all Anglo-Saxon in origin, dating back to the earliest days of our language. In most cases, this is a false assumption. Most of our modern swear words are much more recent than the Old English era. Shit, however, does go back to an Old English root, *scítan . It has cognates in most of the other Germanic languages and shares a common Germanic root with modern equivalents like the modern German scheissen.

*Scitan, however, doesn’t appear in extant Old English texts and is only assumed to have existed in Old English. (The * mark is standard etymological notation for a reconstructed word, one that is believed to have existed. The verb to shit is not actually found in any manuscript until the Middle English period. From a manuscript titled Heil Seint Michel, written sometime before 1325 [the Oxford English Dictionary has a slightly different version of the quote from an unnamed manuscript (possibly the same one) dated from before 1308]:

Hail be ȝe, skinners, wiþ ȝure drenche kiue! Who so smilliþ þerto, wo is him aliue, Whan þat hit þonneriþ, ȝe mote þer in schite.
(Hail be you, skinners, with your tanner’s vats! Who so sniffs at it, woe is him alive, When it thunders, you must shit in there.)

The noun appears prior to 1585 in Sir Patrick Hume of Polwarth’s Flyting With Montgomerie:

Fond flytter, shit shytter.

Although it actually appears as an epithet for a disreputable person in 1508 in Walter Kennedy’s The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedie:

A schit, but wit.

The interjection is of quite recent vintage, not found until 1920 when it appears in a 3 January letter by James Joyce:

O shite and onions! When is this bloody state of affairs going to end?

In 2002, an alleged acronymic origin for shit appeared on the Internet. According to this tale, the word is from an acronym for Ship High In Transit, referring to barges carrying manure. This is a complete fabrication and absurd on its face. All it takes to disprove it is to look up the word in any decent dictionary. Remember, anytime someone posits an acronymic word origin, chances are that it is utterly false.

(Sources: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition; Middle English Dictionary, Univ. of Michigan)

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