A few minutes after Wednesday night’s presidential debate, CNN commentator Van Jones assessed Donald Trump’s performance thus: “I’m just going to say it. This is a very sad night for the country. You can’t polish this turd. I’m sorry.” Before Jones could continue, his colleague Anderson Cooper interjected with some analysis of his own, saying, “Technically, you cannot polish any turd.” Was CNN’s analysis correct? Can you or can you not polish a turd?
You can. The show Mythbusters proved it in a 2008 episode in which they explored the Japanese art form of dorodango, or “making shiny balls out of mud.” The Wikipedia description of the Mythbusters segment notes that the “tedious technique” of dorodango allowed the show’s stars “to obtain very polished poop without using any foreign materials such as wax polish. Measuring their poop for gloss, both samples were found to exceed the minimum specifications for a polished object.”
Daniel Roberts, the director of the National Poo Museum on the Isle of Wight in the United Kingdom, says “can you polish a turd?” is “one of the questions we’re often asked.” Roberts agrees with Mythbusters. Here he is in action:
Who came up with this pungent phrase? In a 1999 remembrance of Stanley Kubrick published in the New York Times Magazine, Jerry Lewis claimed credit for himself:
I was in my cutting room around 1 in the morning, and he strolls in smoking a cigarette and says, “Can I watch?” I said: “Yeah, you can watch. You wanna see a Jew go down? Stand there.” That was the night I coined the expression, “You cannot polish a turd.” And then Kubrick looked at me and said, “You can if you freeze it.”
The first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary—“Listen, you can’t polish a turd”—comes from Geoffrey Stokes’ 1976 book, Star-Making Machinery: Inside the Business of Rock and Roll. (The OED’s definition: “to (seek to) improve something which is inherently or unalterably unpleasant, of poor quality.”) A thread on the website StackExchange notes earlier references to “you can’t shine shit.” Another evocative variant: The British metal band Cradle of Faith was the subject of a 2011 documentary titled You Can’t Polish a Turd … but You Can Roll It in Glitter.