Brow Beat

Taking a Bite Out of “S— Sandwich”

Pain à la merde.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

This post originally appeared on Strong Language, a sweary blog about swearing.

These are the best of times for the hardworking shit- prefix. Last week, here on Strong Language, Ben Zimmer investigated the origins of shitgibbon—an epithet that has attached itself to the current occupant of the White House—and plumbed its deeper history in a follow-up post on Slate’s Brow Beat blog. This week, the merde du jour is shit sandwich, which surfaced Thursday afternoon in a tweet from CNN anchor Jake Tapper about Robert Harward, a retired vice admiral, refusing the post of national security adviser.

(More on Harward from CNN here and from Esquire here.)

Whether Harward actually uttered the words shit sandwich is up for debate; Tapper’s single source was anonymous, and the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Financial Times didn’t even allude in a nonsweary way to the expression. Still, it’s as good a time as any—given the feculent state of affairs at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and environs—to take a closer look at the history of shit sandwich. Which turns out to be more curious than you might suppose.

First of all, unlike its culinary kin shit on a shingle (creamed chipped beef on toast; commonly abbreviated as S.O.S.), shit sandwich is most likely not a World War II army coinage. Shit sandwich, variously defined as “a very unpleasant situation” (Oxford English Dictionary) or “a humbling experience; humble pie” (Green’s Dictionary of Slang), first appeared in print, according to the OED, in 1966. Mysteriously, that appearance was in the English translation of An Anecdoted Topography of Chance, by the Swiss artist Daniel Spoerri, who had written the book in French. Here is the relevant passage:

Just this morning Monsieur Georges expanded the philosophical observation of one of his customers, Camille, that ‘Life is a shit sandwich’ with: ‘Yes, and we take a bite every day.’

The OED annotates the citation:

[The use in quot. 1966 is from an interpolation in the English version of the text, and does not have an analogue in the French original.]

No pain à la merde? Sacré bleu!

Could shit sandwich have been coined by soldiers in a later conflict—specifically, the Vietnam War? That’s possible, even likely. In a 2011 Language Log post, the linguist Mark Liberman writes that the idiom Satan sandwich is “a sanitized version of the old expression ‘shit sandwich,’ ” which “has been in widespread use, for at least half a century, to describe a deeply unpleasant experience which is nevertheless something that you’re expected to swallow. I certainly heard it more than once in Vietnam.”

Moreover, it turns up—in phrasing almost identical to that in Anecdoted Topography—in a scene in Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 film Full Metal Jacket. The movie, set in 1967 and 1968, is based in part on the war experiences of Michael Herr, author of the Vietnam memoir Dispatches.

“In other words, it’s a huge shit sandwich, and we’re all gonna have to take a bite.”

Liberman had this to say about that particular expression:

This phrase came to be associated with the football player and coach Joe Schmidt, who was fond of the maxim “Life is a shit sandwich, and every day you take another bite”. (The more sanitary end of this saying was used by Larry Merchant for the title of his 1971 football book “And every day you take another bite.”)

Joe Schmidt (born 1932) played professional football from 1953 to 1965 and coached the Detroit Lions from 1967 to 1972.

Shit sandwich is also frequently extended into a different idiom, this one about money (“bread”).

Disconcertingly, shit sandwich is not always a metaphor. See, for example, a Nov. 5, 2016, story in the San Antonio Express-News, tactfully headlined “Officials: SA cop fired for attempting to feed fecal sandwich to homeless person.” (“This was a vile and disgusting act that violates our guiding principles of ‘treating all with integrity, compassion, fairness and respect,’ Chief William McManus said in a prepared statement.”)

With shit sandwich featuring so prominently in the news, can an emoji be far behind?