Some years ago, Slate contributor Paul Collins became curious about the history of the word bonkers. After a letter to the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary, its etymology was updated. Herewith, a sequel.
Dear Editors of the Oxford English Dictionary,
In my more hopeful moments, I like to think that drunken frat brothers everywhere are quoting Beat poetry to each other. It would be a fine vindication of our educational system. And it seems to be the implication of the definition of shit-faced—which, along with the other shit compound words, lives in the OED between shish-kebab and shiv.
Right now you attribute the term’s first use to Allen Ginsberg:
shit-faced, adj. orig. U.S. (a) contemptible; ugly…. (b) intoxicated with alcohol or drugs; spec. extremely drunk. 1961 A. GINSBERG, Empty Mirror 19 “Why, you *shit-faced fool!”
It’s a satisfying usage, but 1961 seems a bit late to me. And sure enough, delving into the wonderful 1948 linguistic study “North Texas Agricultural College Slang” reveals this earlier use: “S.F.C., n., An undesirable person. From shit-faced Charley.”
The authors note that the students of the school, now the University of Texas at Arlington, were primarily WWII veterans. Charley had not yet come to mean Vietcong, but there’s still a hint of military slang in the acronym itself. S.F.C., after all, can also stand for Sergeant First Class. So I think we might suspect the involvement of an officer named Charles—perhaps in the vicinity of Texas.
But why shit? And why on the face?
Shit’s rich history reaches back to Old Norse skita, and by Chaucer’s time a romance like Kyng Alisaunder could speak of wondrous snakes in the exotic East, where “the addres shiteth preciouse stones.” A 1641 treatise addresses a braggart as “thou cracking shit-fire,” and one 1766 dictionary entertainingly lists everything from shit-abed and shit-breech to shittenly and shittle-come-shites. Personally, I’d like to see that last one make a comeback.
Actually, the shittle in shittle-come-shites hints at a complication, because while shites is pretty much what you’d think, shittle is not. Shit history is full false cognates like shittle—which proves to be related to shuttle, in the sense of inconstancy. That’s why a 1448 letter-writer could worry that “I am aferd that Jon of Sparham is so schyttyl wyttyd.” The same root later meant you could play badminton with a shittlecock. (This 1797 report of a Chinese “game of shittlecock… [played] with the sole of the foot” appears to be an early description of hacky-sack.) Even more shit gets slung around by chit, from the same root as kit or kitten—while another derivation from to shut accounts for a c. 1415 sermon’s curious exhortation to “shitt þe gates of heven.”
Victorian lexicographers, as you might expect, present almost gingerbreadlike ornamentations upon shit. An 1857 dictionary features shitesticks and shiterags (both meaning a miser) and the delightful “exclamation of contempt” shittletidee, while a 1875 study notes the institution of Shit-Sack-Day, which seems to involve apples. Shit-Sack-Day, by the way, falls on May 29. I trust you will not confuse it with Shitten Saturday, which is another occasion altogether.
Somehow, among all this shit, I discovered a different previous usage of shit-faced—and for us to connect shit to face, the above history does help. Namely, I refer to the 1825 edition of John Jamieson’s Dictionary of the Scottish Language. There are some real gems in there—it is a veritable adder full of precious stones—words like to shog, a verb that means “to shake from corpulence.”
But in particular, I draw your attention to this entry:
SHIT-FACED, adj. Having a very small face, as a child, Clydes[dale].; q. chit-faced?
Instead of, say, a deeply unfortunate drunken pratfall, this shit-faced may come from the old Scottish fondness for referring to children as little shits; Jamieson’s 1818 edition notes just such a “contemptuous designation for a child.” One might imagine this usage arising late at night, while stepping on children’s toys in the dark. But no—this shit, Jamieson writes, is indeed derived from the kittenish chit.
Chit-faced, in fact, already had a long history. Thomas Dekker’s 1622 play The Virgin Martyr includes this complaint: “I stole but a durty pudding, last day, out of an alms-basket, to give my dog, when he was hungry, and the peaking chitfaced page hit me int’ teeth with it.” There’s nothing excremental about it—though, admittedly, it’s immediately followed by a line about dropping a turd into a bowl of porridge.
All of which gets us no closer to the notion of drunkenness, but it does show that there’s more than one way to get shit-faced in Scotland.
But perhaps you already knew that.