I was having a tutoring session with my young student Marcus Brattle on the patio at Café Kopi Luwak when I looked up to see a lean figure with a five-o’clock shadow and a portable dog coming towards us.
Ross Ewage, noted vulgarian.
“Shit,” I said. Marcus looked up.
Ross drew abreast. “Did I hear you talking about my dog?”
“Your dog?” Marcus asked. “I believe he said, ‘Shit.’”
“That’s my dog,” said Ross, holding the small creature before him. “Shit Sue. She’s a nice little shit, Sue.”
“If we were to pronounce the breed name shih-tzu more like the Mandarin original,” I observed, “that pun wouldn’t be available.”
“Well, we don’t, and it is,” Ross said, setting the dog on the pavement. “So what’re you doing here? Just shootin’ the shit?”
I tried to steer away from the coprolalia. “We were discussing Star Trek,” I said.
“Oh, shit, that’s good shit, that is,” Ross said. “The original series especially. That shit is the shit. I mean, it’s the real shit.”
“No it’s not!” Marcus said. “It’s not the shit! It’s just shit. The later shit is much better shit.” Marcus was always quick to warm to the improper.
“Ah, you’re fulla shit.” Ross waved his hand.
“But the premises are such wild bullshit,” Marcus said.
“That’s science fiction,” I observed. “It relies on a healthy helping of what Orson Scott Card calls pseudo-scientific garbage.”
“Look,” Ross said, “it’s the same shit everywhere: you drop the crew on some shit planet, they get knee-deep in shit dealing with some dumb shit, and then by shit-ass luck they get out. But in the course of that, they come up with some really interesting shit. It’s not meant to be real life.”
“No shit, Sherlock,” Marcus said.
“But the original Star Trek did it first. They own that shit.”
“You know,” I said to Marcus, “if your mother heard this conversation, we’d be up shit creek.”
“Ha! She’d shit a brick,” he laughed. “The shit would hit the fan. Ah, tough shit.” He swigged his coffee.
“Well, then why are you meeting at a place named ‘cat shit coffee’?” Ross asked.
Score one point for Ross.
Marcus looked up at the restaurant sign. “What?”
“Kopi luwak,” I said. “That’s coffee that’s been eaten by civets – often called civet cats, though they’re not really cats – and then shat out. The beans are harvested from the excrement, cleaned up, roasted, and served. It’s the most expensive coffee in the world.”
“That’s some crazy shit,” Marcus said. “It must be tough to gather that shit.”
“They have to catch it first,” said Ross, but he said “catch it” more like “cat shit.”
“I think,” declared Marcus, “this shit is a very versatile word. And it certainly has a good sound to it.”
“Yeah, it’s like sliding into home plate,” said Ross. “You can really hiss it – you can say it with clenched teeth. And it slides to a nice stop.”
“It’s just like the doors on the Enterprise,” Marcus said. “You hear when they open and close: shit…shit.”
“Yes,” I added, warming to the topic a bit more, “and while it has that hushing ‘sh’ it also carries more force than the other popular vulgarity that starts with a voiceless fricative and ends with a stop. That one has the teeth biting the lip, which restrains the air more and is less loud, more a gesture of holding something back; it then really lets the dam burst –”
“Damn is not the word –” Ross said, but I cut him off and continued.
“It lets the dam burst with a more open vowel, and then it ends at the back. Shit maintains high pressure by staying tight up at the tip of the tongue.”
“Especially if you’re drinking kopi luwak,” Marcus observed. “I declare. It really gets around for an acronym.”
Ross and I turned and looked with the same expression: bullshit meter needle tipping into the red. “Acronym?” I said.
“Don’t you know that?” Marcus said. “From ship high in transit?”
“That’s bullshit,” I said.
“That’s not just bullshit, that’s horseshit,” Ross averred. “Listen, anyone who thinks vulgarities come from acronyms doesn’t know Jack shit about etymology. People don’t make vulgarities from acronyms; they make acronyms to hide vulgarities. SNAFU. SOL. WTF. Vulgarities are good old Germanic words. As they say, Anglo-Saxon four-letter words.”
“Shit comes from an Old English root, the verb scitan,” I said, pronouncing it like “she tan.” “It’s cognate with, for instance, German Scheiss. It was a verb first, then a noun from that. Another form, less common, is shite. Which has been used occasionally in other terms of abuse, such as nimshite, which means ‘shit taker’.”
“You’re shitting me,” Marcus said.
“That’s no shit,” Ross said.
Marcus reached for his coffee but bumped the table, which tilted and spilled the beverages. “Aw, shit. What a piece of shit,” he said, smacking the table.
“I think that’s my cue to exit,” said Ross. As he turned to walk away, he discovered with his shoe that his dog had been busy. He lifted his foot. “Shit,” he observed.
Marcus smirked. “Shit happens.”
Thanks to Alison Kooistra for suggesting I taste shit.