“Have you ever seen the crowd goin’ apeshit?” That’s the musical question posed in “Apeshit,” the latest single from Beyoncé and Jay-Z, who also released a lush Louvre-set video for the song over the weekend. But that prompts another question: Why do we say go apeshit to mean “go crazy”?
As with other scatological expressions like shithole and shithouse, it can be a bit difficult to track the origins of any elaborations on shit, long a taboo term in print. But based on the historical evidence we can piece together, it looks like go ape was first popularized as American youth slang, conjuring the image of an ape’s out-of-control behavior, and this got embellished into go apeshit among Air Force pilots and other military men during the Korean War.
Go ape may have first caught on among students in the Southwest. A list of campus slang from the University of New Mexico appearing in a December 1951 article in the Albuquerque Journal gave “he went ape” as an example, glossed as “to extremes.” But the faddish younger set may have already been tiring of that expression. Two months earlier, in the Desert Sentinel of Desert Hot Springs, California, a high schooler named Jackie Darling wrote, “‘I hear that the new by-word is ‘I’m going gorilla’ instead of ‘I’m going ape.’ ” (Jay-Z is, of course, up on this lingo too.)
Still, go ape spread around the country in short order. In October 1952, the Daily Times of Davenport, Iowa, printed a letter to the editor from a student complaining that the newspaper betrayed a bias in favor of Dwight D. Eisenhower in that year’s presidential election. “If you want to get your candidate Eisenhower into the White House by going ‘ape’ all the way during the last days of campaigning, then do it in a more journalistic and ethical manner,” the student wrote.
Meanwhile, more profane versions of the expression were catching on in the military. The earliest known example of go apeshit, as recorded by Jonathan Lighter in the Historical Dictionary of American Slang, appeared in Troubling of a Star, a 1952 novel by Walt Sheldon set among Air Force personnel serving in the Korean War. One character says, “What do I want to fight for? You going apeshit?” From around the same time, Lighter also cites a songbook from the 41st Fighter Squadron, which flew air defense during the war: “They’ll drive you ape shit, they’ll drive you insane.”
Of course, apeshit wasn’t typically fit for print back then, so various euphemisms had to be enlisted instead. One popular substitution was ape-sweat. In the August 1954 issue of Argosy, Frank Harvey wrote an article entitled “They Call It Ape-Sweat,” about pilots serving in the remote Thule Air Base in Greenland, the U.S. military’s northernmost installation. Harvey followed that up in Flying magazine later that year, in which he explained how some of the troops at the base “go ape-sweat”:
Ape sweat is a term which means the same as Glacier Goofy, Rock Happy or Snow Stupid. It simply means a guy has snapped his cap for some reason or other, usually because he got bad news from the girl friend.
Another euphemism showed up in an August 1955 article in the Chicago Tribune about the crews working the arctic-defense perimeter at Thule and other bases. A first sergeant is quoted as saying that after a few months of serving, the men “have a couple of weeks of going ape-nuts.”
Ape-nuts is particularly clever, as it manages to work in another American slang term for crazy. Nuts (or nutty) originally meant “infatuated with someone or something” before it took on more deranged connotations. Later in the 1950s, go bananas emerged as another member of this slang family, likely influenced by the earlier popularity of go ape.
Go apeshit, as Beyoncé and Jay-Z are well aware, is a far more intense expression of lack of control than the more innocuous go ape. For some, the phrase might bring to mind the image of a primate flinging its feces, but -shit is working as a more general intensifier here. As the lexicographer Kory Stamper wrote on the Strong Language blog (where I also contribute), “go ape tends to imply a happy, usually harmless frenzy, whereas go apeshit almost always refers to violent or other ill-mannered explosions.”
The intensifying power of the -shit suffix can also be seen in batshit, which first referred to something worthless before embarking on the same crazy train as apeshit, most likely inspired by bats and batty in the mentally unstable sense (derived from the idea of someone having “bats in the belfry”). And when political strategist Rick Wilson said on MSNBC last year that Republicans were afraid of Donald Trump “going crazy, you know, ripshit bonkers on them,” his use of ripshit took advantage of -shit as an intensifier as well as the demented predecessors apeshit and batshit.
Beyond all this, the Carters’ use of apeshit takes on additional resonances. In the song, Jay-Z’s verse draws on other animalistic imagery, quoting a line from “Faneto” by the Chicago rapper Chief Keef: “I’m a gorilla in a fuckin’ coupe/ Finna pull up to the zoo.” The conscious use of ape and gorilla reclaims terms that are too often used as racial slurs (as Roseanne Barr has recently reminded us). The song’s evocation of “the crowd goin’ apeshit”—especially when juxtaposed with the staid, classical European art in the video—is transgressive in more ways than one.