Lexicon Valley

The Craptastic History of Sh-t Show

A canine performer stages a shit show.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

When my brother and his wife threw a birthday party last year for their youngest daughter, seven or eight preschoolers, along with most of their parents, arrived at 2 p.m. on a Saturday. As midafternoon merriment gave way to late afternoon and then evening, the kids, huddled in a Disneyfied trance in the living room, watched Frozen for a second consecutive time. The adults, meanwhile, found their own form of repetitive recreation.

“Everyone kept eating and drinking and by six o’clock I realized that no one was leaving, so we just made more food and kept the wine flowing,” recalled my brother Matt, who, having exhausted his supply of 750 ml bottles, began corking the nine magnums that he kept as decoration in an antique tool cart turned bar. It would be near midnight before the impromptu bacchanal finally disbanded, when yawning children left for home with their wobbly mommies and daddies. “It was kind of a shit show,” said my brother.

Until recently, the phrase “shit show” was part of my bubble vocabulary, a term invented by Slate’s Seth Stevenson for words that skim the edges of familiarity and accessibility but remain “just out of grasp.” A child’s party that metamorphosed unexpectedly into 10 hours of boozy revelry sounded fun, I thought. Wasn’t a “shit show” an unwelcome occurrence, acutely annoying and chaotic? @KatieBielawski certainly thinks so:

My brother happens to commute into Manhattan every day and confirmed the frequent shit-showiness of Penn Station, where, as he described an all-too-common tableau, “I get off the subway and I run into a crowd of 500 people just standing there staring at the screens because all the trains are delayed or canceled and people are trying to get through and bumping into each other and yelling at each other and it’s a total shit show.” On the other hand, he added, “a show can be entertaining.” Just ask @Sarah-niles16:

So what exactly is this coprophilic coinage?

The Oxford English Dictionary has no entry just yet for shit show, though lexicographers there have begun amassing a digital file on the phrase, which they generously shared with me. Katherine Connor Martin, head of U.S. dictionaries at Oxford University Press, says “the earliest evidence we are aware of is from 1976, in an English translation of comments made by a member of the Red Army Faction.”

In the early 1970s, Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof founded a violent band of leftist, anti-government radicals in Germany that became known in the press as the Baader-Meinhof Gang but called itself the Red Army Faction, or RAF. A number of charter members were captured early on, including a young woman named Monika Berberich, who, after a detention and trial that stretched on for more than 43 months, was sentenced to 12 years in prison for her part in several armed bank robberies. Berberich filed a complaint with the European Commission of Human Rights, suggesting that the German government violated her treaty-enforced guarantee of a “trial within a reasonable time.” The commission ultimately ruled against Berberich, noting that she, along with her co-conspirators, “contributed a great deal to the delay of the proceedings”:

On March 16 1973 the applicant and the other defendants again insulted the public prosecutors in the courtroom and threw cheese at them. On another occasion they made a ballpoint pen explode which they had stuffed with the sulphur taken from matches. From 8 May 1973 to 28 June 1973 the applicant again participated in a hunger strike. As a result the court sat only in the morning for two or three hours because it was feared that the defendant would not be fit to attend the trial during the whole day. On 22 June 1973 the applicant again refused to attend the trial. She had therefore to be taken handcuffed to the courtroom. There she insulted the presiding judge saying: “There is that swine again. We don’t want this shit-show any longer …”

So there you have it. Through the tangle of translation, shit show makes a rather theatrical English-language debut with an apparent sense of spectacle (albeit one of the “shit-show” utterer’s own creation). But there’s a difficulty in identifying shit shows in the wild, one that makes tracking the evolution of the phrase tricky. As Oxford’s Martin points out:

Because shit is an adjective as well as a noun, examples of “shit show” are open to multiple interpretations: depending on the context, they can represent either “shit adj. + show n.” (a shitty show) or shit n. + show n. (a show of shit). For instance, in this example from 1999 (“A relationship means more to you than anything else in your life. Falling in love means more and you’d always rather do it and do a shit show.”) a musician is talking about a subpar (crappy, shitty) performance—a literal show. We wouldn’t consider this to be evidence of the same fixed lexical item as in examples like “the party was a complete shit show.”

About halfway through James Ellroy’s brilliant 1990 crime novel L.A. Confidential, Det. Sgt. Jack Vincennes advises District Attorney Ellis Loew to focus on the multiple homicide at the Nite Owl coffee shop and to let the search for the murderer of Sid Hudgens, a tabloid magazine publisher with no shortage of enemies, run its fruitless course:

“Let it play out. Push on the Nite Owl, that’s the one the public wants cleared. Hudgens was shit, the investigation’ll be a shit show and we’ll never get the killer. Let it play out.”

Ellroy’s shit show is the very “fixed lexical item” that lexicographers at Oxford are interested in, meaning, like the example from the Baader-Meinhof trial, a circus of sorts. Unfortunately, not all shit shows are so scrutable.

In the late 1970s, while a student at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, Kelsey Kauffman talked to corrections officers in Massachusetts about the practice of lugging, or carrying drugs for an inmate, which was categorically taboo. In her dissertation—Prison Officers and Their World, published in 1985—Kauffman wrote:

The prohibition against lugging drugs also received strong endorsement by officers at Concord, Norfolk and Bridgewater. As a Norfolk officer explained, “That means that this supposedly fellow officer, brother officer, doesn’t give a damn about you. He’s looking out for himself.” “That’s a shit show,” a Concord officer succinctly agreed.

Kauffman, who is now director of the higher education program at Indiana Women’s Prison, told me that she had never heard the phrase before that day in 1978, when she conducted the interview, and took it to mean shitty behavior, as in a shitty showing or display. Maybe, but here’s a thought. Perhaps in its infancy, shit show was more strictly akin to calling something a mockery, like a supposedly sham trial or an ostensible upholder of the law betraying his colleagues by smuggling drugs, and then shed that subtlety over time.

Curiously, the phrase shit show was around about a decade before the Baader-Meinhof trial in a far more literal context (@KatieBielawski’s claim to actual train station defecation notwithstanding). In the early 1960s, visual artists Sam Goodman, Stanley Fisher, and Boris Lurie conceived what they called the No!art movement, whose works were, in part, a protest against the snobbish mores of the art establishment. In 1964, Goodman and Lurie staged an exhibition at the Gertrude Stein Gallery of, in the words of Tom Wolfe at the time, “21 piles of sculpted mammal dung” made from extruded plaster.

The “No Sculptures/Shit Show,” as it was titled, was reviewed in the New York Times by Brian O’Doherty, who said:

These aggregations of colonic calligraphy contain many formal excellences for anyone whose purist education forces him to perceive them. But the subject matter puts the joke on those who do find formal values in it. … And although the exhibition meets the standards by which the museums have accepted the newest art, they would never invite Mr. Goodman in—a welcome beating of the museums at their own game.

In other words, a mockery! It’s tempting to think that shit show carried that connotation in 1964, and that Goodman and Lurie intended it as a double-entendre. Regardless, Martin is not convinced that the term has a detectable arc:

There are different strands of meaning in play, but I’m not sure they show a clear evolution over time. Also, contemporary use isn’t limited to the nuance of “chaotic/confused”; there is still often an element of “disastrously mishandled” (along the lines of clusterfuck, fiasco), which would seem to fit the older James Ellroy example. The negative quality in the prison guard example could be read as “chaotic,” but it’s difficult to tell from the context. It might simply be “undesirable/bad.”

Perhaps the most instructive way to think about shit show is in contrast to its scatological cousin, shitstorm, which dates to at least the 1940s when Norman Mailer put it in the mouths of American soldiers in The Naked and the Dead. In this exchange, Red is chatting with his platoonmate Wilson:

Red spat. “I knew we been havin’ it soft too long. Two to one they send us out to catch a shit-storm tonight.”

Wilson nodded, shaking his head angrily. “When you have it good it don’ pay to bitch. All those replacements wantin’ to see combat, they’re gonna change they mind.”

If a shitstorm is actual war, unrelenting and ominous, a shit show is the Bruckheimer-esque blockbuster about the war—spectacular, craptacular, or both.