git

A British friend of mine a few years ago explained the cause of a falling-out he had had with another friend: the other’s particularly “git-like” behaviour. I got what he meant – the sense is well-enough established: “jerk”, “yahoo”, any of a variety of more vulgar terms. “An uncultivated person lacking in merit”. The word is often seen with modifiers: brainless git is seen by Harry Potter readers; you will also see cheeky git, smarmy git, jammy git, grumpy old git, senseless git, woo-hoo git – oh, sorry, that last is the name of the lead character in The Yellow Jacket, a play set in China – and done in an imitation of Chinese theatre style – that was popular in the 19-teens (actually, it was Wu Hoo Git, but close enough… read more about it in an article I published in Asian Theatre Journal 13:2 (Fall 1996)). But I’ve seen some people I’d readily call woo-hoo gits.

So where do we get this word? How do we beget it? Does it seem a bit misbegotten? If you search in the Corpus of Contemporary American English, you find southern and western American usages of git as a dialectal form of get, in the manner of “Y’all git along or y’all git on outa here” or the famous “Git along, little dogies.” Meanwhile, you can find get used in England in basically the same way as the noun git – for instance, in “I’m so tired” by the Beatles: “Although I’m so tired I’ll have another cigarette / And curse Sir Walter Raleigh / He was such a stupid get.”

Yes, git the noun does come from get the verb. Heck, many people – not just stereotypical American rurals, but even most Canadians – say get like “git” a lot of the time. As verbs go, get is a well-established and heavily used but underappreciated one; I have even heard of people declaring it bad English. So the word, with its short hit from a nearly guttural start to an abrupt stop (often pre-stopped by the glottis before the tongue tip even touches), comes with a downmarket flavour from the get-go, and doubly so when you move from get to the less dignified (because nonstandard and “lower-class”) git.

I’ll git to the point here. Get is also – though not so often anymore – used for conception and childbirth (get a woman with child, for instance), and, from that, get came to be used (by the 1300s) as a noun for the issue of that, a child: what is begotten. And in northern English and Scottish usage, get came to be used specifically for a brat or a bastard… and thence for an idle, contemptible fellow, a fool, an idiot (idiot has a little of the feel of git, too – as does its Irish-English mutation, eejit). It has been in continuous use in that sense since the 1500s.

The git spelling, slightly baser in tone, is evidenced in print somewhat more recently (the Oxford English Dictionary has citations for it only from the 20th century, though I wouldn’t be surprised if good antedatings could be found by those motivated to do so). But it has earned its place in the lexicon of abuse. I got a good laugh when I looked in Visual Thesaurus for synonyms: on the same node, you get bum, stinkpot, stinker, so-and-so, skunk, scumbag, rotter, rat, lowlife, dirty dog, and crumb.

One thing git has that those others don’t, though: a direct echo of a direct verb. You can say “Why’n’t you git, you git,” where you can’t say “Why’n’t you bum, you bum,” or “Why’n’t you scumbag, you scumbag.”

Of course that is also one of its two greatest weaknesses: it can be ambiguous. The other weakness is that it’s so short, you really don’t have time to enjoy saying it. ZZ Top wrote a song called – and about a – “Dirty Dog.” You just can’t do that so easily with git.

Oh well. When you just need to get down to it, it gits-r-done.

Thanks to Dawn Loewen for suggesting git.

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3 responses to “git

  1. The late Anne McCaffrey once attempted to use the noun get in its meaning of offspring, but was foiled.

    She released a collection of stories for which her title was Get Of the Unicorn, which she described (and I paraphrase, as I’m going by memory) as having a pleasantly sexual undertone.

    However, some ignorant editor or other changed the title and the thing ended up being released as Get Off the Unicorn

    <sigh> Alas for editors who know not their language.

  2. Another noun that one usually understands to be an insult could also be said to be ambiguous. If one is called a “pissant,” it’s because one is thought to be of little or inconsequential significance. Whereas if one calls oneself a “piss ant,” it is because one believes oneself to be an irritant to one’s opposition.

    How did this word evolve, I wonder?

    Regards, Kristen Dolenko Ottawa, ON

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