Lexicon Valley

The Fascinating Lexicography of a Dirty Adjective

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Photo illustration by Sofya Levina. ikopylov/Thinkstock

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

Sometime in the 20th century, shit—having already long been a verb and then a noun—also became an adjective, as in He was a shit teacher or That restaurant has shit service. Exactly when this happened is a bit tricky to pin down, precisely because of the word’s versatility. In many contexts, the shit you think is an adjective might actually be a noun.

There’s a common misconception that putting one noun in front of another noun turns the first into an adjective:

These statements reveal a confusion between a word’s class and its grammatical function. A noun (say, cunt) doesn’t suddenly become an adjective just because it’s used to modify another noun (say, hair). The cunt in cunt hair is still a noun (its word class), but it happens to function grammatically as a modifier. Because adjectives are prototypical modifiers, people sometimes learn that all modifiers “act as adjectives.”

Nominal and adjectival shit, however, offer a great opportunity to tease out the distinction, even though the boundary can get a bit murky.

As linguist Lynne Murphy pointed out in 2007, using shit as adjective is much more common in the U.K. than in North America, where speakers prefer using shitty. In fact, although the Oxford English Dictionary has an entry for adjectival shit, defining it as “Bad; unpleasant; highly displeasing; unskilled; of poor quality, ability, etc.,” Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged doesn’t even acknowledge it.

In contrast, shit as an attributive noun is much more widespread and has a transparent definition. A shit house is a house in which one shits, for example, and a shit sandwich is a sandwich made with shit—whereas a shit book, shit used adjectivally here, is just a terrible book.

Another clue is in how readily shit compounds. Shit storm and shit stain, where shit is a noun, can be rendered as shitstorm and shitstain with little confusion to the reader, but you probably wouldn’t say *I have a shitcar when you mean I have a shit car. Note also the difference in stress: the emphasis in shit storm and shit stain is unambiguously on the shitShit car has equal emphasis on both words.

If you can replace shit with shitty without changing the meaning, you’ve got yourself an adjectival shitI have a shitty car is pretty much the same as I have a shit car, but it doesn’t make sense to say *This place is a shitty hole when you mean This place is a shit hole, and a shitty show doesn’t mean the same thing as a shit show. Whether shitty and adjectival shit are truly equivalent is a matter of debate. Ben Yagoda’s exploration of a similar pair—adjectival crap and crappy—suggests that to some speakers, they’re subtly distinct semantically.

A final test: Can you intensify? If the Corpus of Global Web-based English (GloWbE) is any indication, intensifying shit is almost unheard of in North America but is prevalent in the U.K., Australia, and New Zealand. Even if it sounds odd to the North American ear, though, a phrase that accommodates an adverb like quite in front of the shit—as in That movie was quite shit—is proof your shit is adjectival and not nominal.

We can find some collocations commonly used in North America where the shit is more likely adjectival than nominal: telling an American that you had a shit day working a shit job for shit pay wouldn’t be out of the ordinary. Shit job is, according to GloWbE, almost as popular in the US as in the UK, and shit day and shit pay are more popular.

The OED’s earliest citation of adjectival shit is from the 1968 biography of the Beatles by Hunter Davies, who quoted John Lennon as saying “I think [jazz] is shit music, even more stupid than rock and roll.” I suspect the usage is older, and Green’s Dictionary of Slang does go back further, citing Ernest Hemingway, who wrote “All criticism is shit anyway” in a 1925 letter. The problem with this example is that this use of shit is predicative, coming after the noun, so it could be interpreted as either an adjective or a noun. “All criticism is shitty anyway” and “All criticism is (metaphorical) shit anyway” both make sense.

For predicative shit, one way to tell if it’s meant as an adjective is if it has an adverb modifying it, but the historical corpora that I dug through, including Google Books and the Corpus of Historical American English (COHA), didn’t have any examples of intensified shit that antedated the Davies quote. Another method is to look for shit used after particular copula (linking) verbs. We can’t say for sure if she is shit is adjectival, but that seems shit or it looks shit would be.

The earliest plausible candidate I could find was shit deal, which pops up in American Mark Harris’ 1956 novel Bang the Drum Slowly. I’d argue it’s adjectival, in that the phrase is roughly equivalent to shitty deal.

Screenshot via Google Books

Without a corpus of British English equivalent to COHA, it’s not easy to figure out where and when adjectival shit originated. Google Ngram Viewer’s part-of-speech tagging implies it might have begun sometime in the 1930s, but I question its reliability. These results also suggest that shit as an adjective is more common than shit as a verb, which we know isn’t true.

If you discover an early, unambiguous instance of shit as an adjective, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.