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Q From Bonnie Simpson; related questions came from Vicky Hambly, David Hay, Ed Sievers, Bob Lawless, and Henry van Wageningen: Someone sent me an email giving the supposedly true origin of a certain rude word as a naval term used when transporting manure as fertilizer deep in the holds of ships. The message claims that when manure gets wet, it makes methane, which can collect in the hold and blow up the ship. To avoid this, crates or sacks were marked S.H.I.T., meaning Ship High In Transit. It would be good to know if this is correct, or just somebody’s invention.

A There’s no truth in the story whatsoever. It’s yet another of those products of inventive but twisted minds that bring us strange stories about life in 1500 and try to convince us that people hold wakes in order to see whether the supposed corpse wakes up. This one isn’t even a good example of the type — it doesn’t sound in the least plausible.

The true origin is the Old English scitte, diarrhoea, which is related to Dutch schijten, and German scheissen. (My late father-in-law, visiting Germany as a young man, once tried to explain to his hosts that some farmers had been shooting pigeons over the house. Sadly, the German verb “to shoot” is schiessen and he got the vowel wrong. Mutual embarrassment ensued.)

We are a little mealy-mouthed these days about the word, one of those classic Anglo-Saxon four-letter words, even though it is among the most common expletives known. When it first appeared, though, there were no negative or vulgar associations about it.

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Page created 01 Feb 2003