As part of the launch of Bullshit: A Lexicon, Mark Peters is writing a BS word of the day.
I just wrote a whole book about bullshit—Bullshit: A Lexicon—but that isn’t the first shitty accomplishment of my writing career: I wrote a peer-reviewed article on batshit for the linguistics journal American Speech in 2006.
The thesis of that article was that batshit was surging in popularity and would eventually be as common and successful as apeshit. I don’t know if batshit has quite reached that level, but it’s unquestionably a common word for insanity. Just look at these recent uses:
“ ‘The Player’ Creator Teases ‘Batshit Crazy’ Twists for Wesley Snipes Series”
The Hollywood Reporter, Sept. 24
“Here’s Why Australian Politics Is Batshit Insane”
BuzzFeed News, Sept. 14
“Japan’s Destiny: The Taken King Commercial is Batshit Crazy”
Crave online, Sept. 10
“As Republicans Go Batshit on Immigration, Democrats Turn Into Sweet Angels”
Reason.com, Sept. 3
“Charlie Pickering Skewers ‘Batshit Crazy’ Attitudes to Sexual Assault on The Weekly”
Daily Life, Aug. 13
You have to figure batshit is an unlikely word to appear in headlines, so imagine how many times it appears in articles, TV shows, movies, and tweets, like this joke by Jenny Johnson: “Marriage is between 1 batshit crazy woman and 3 hillbillies. We must uphold the sanctity of this institution. Now… play that ‘Rocky’ song.”
So what does all this have to do with bullshit? Well, before batshit took the Lexical Crazy Train, it was one of many synonyms for BS. It’s been found in print meaning nonsense and/or something worthless since at least 1950. A euphemistic variation from a 1969 issue of Playboy (recorded in the Historical Dictionary of American Slang) is a great example of the BS sense: “To contend that violence is the only tactic open to students seeking change is pure bat droppings.” Soon after, in the early ’70s, the now-familiar crazy meaning starts popping up. This 1971 use from Lieutenant Calley: His Own Story is one of the earliest known uses of batshit as crazy: “Most of America’s males were in Korea or World War II or I. They killed, and they aren’t all going batshit.”
But batshit has another meaning that’s nearly an antonym for crazy in the mainly Australian expression boring as batshit. The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest use is less alliterative, as the 1964 novel My Brother Jack includes a character who would “describe somebody as being ‘as silly as a two-bob watch’ or ‘dreary as bat-shit’.”
Why is batshit boring in Australia and crazy in the U.S.? Maybe Australian bats need to vary their diets, or maybe it’s just the appeal of alliteration. I reckon it makes more sense that batshit strayed from bullshit into loonier meanings, because the word bat is so associated with insanity. Since at least 1901, bats in the belfry has been a term for craziness, and you can also be batty or just bats.
It’s no accident that Batman is the superhero most often accused of being as crazy as the riddle-spouting, deathtrap-making villains he fights. If you’re an immigrant from Krypton with unimaginable powers, it sort of makes sense to wear your underwear over your tights and punch bad guys. You’re basically a god, and gods are weird. But for a regular guy with no powers to dress like a bat and fight evil clowns … Well, that’s only a tad loonier than what the evil clowns are doing. Batman helps keep the crazy in bat, and he also brings the cool. Batshit is part of that cool too.
Previously on BS Word of the Day: