So far we’ve seen shitpost anointed the digital word of the year by the American Dialect Society, and a list of “Shitty Media Men” making headlines when Harper’s announced plans to publish a story about it. Not to mention the shitty hits of 2017, shitburger, shit show, ripshit bonkers, and shit sandwich.
All that was prologue to the latest shit-storm: the revelation, in the Washington Post, followed by other media outlets, that President Trump on Thursday had attacked protections for immigrants from what he called “shithole countries” such as Haiti and El Salvador, as well as the entire continent of Africa.
“In the Hole,” by Anthony Russo.
“Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” Trump said, according to “several people briefed on the meeting” between the president and lawmakers from both parties. Trump went on to suggest that the United States should instead bring in more people from Norway, whose prime minister he’d met with on Wednesday. (The unsubtle subtext: more white people.)
The gang at Strong Language, a group blog to which I contribute, snapped to attention: this was important breaking news on the profanity beat. There was a flurry of excited Gmailing. Contributor Kory Stamper, a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster, quickly published a post on her own blog, Harmless Drudgery, about why it’s such a BFD; she cross-posted it at Strong Language. Kory wrote about the reaction at M-W:
As soon as word reached us in the bowels of the syntax mines, all activity ceased. It’s not notable because Donald Trump said it, it’s notable because it made it into newspapers–several of them, even!–unexpurgated. We all fizzed with excitement: time to take some motherfucking citations.
The news media were more conflicted. The Post pulled no punches, publishing the entire unexpurgated word in its headline,possibly for the first time in its 140-year history (“When the president says it, we’ll use it verbatim,” said executive editor Marty Baron). The New York Times was slightly more muted, going with “disparaging words” in its main headline and shithole in the deck. According to a bot that tweets words when they first appear in the Times’s news or editorial sections, the usage was unprecedented.
New York Times, 1/11/18 Washington Post, 1/11/18
Cable news, which is subject to a Federal Communications Commission prohibition on “obscene, indecent, and profane content,” took a forked approach. Fox News and MSNBC chose to insert asterisks in their chryons (MSNBC removed them a little later in the evening), while CNN printed the full S-word. MSNBC’s Joy Ann Reid (substituting for Chris Hayes) and CNN’s Erin Burnett went with the demure “S-hole,” but Anderson Cooper, whose program follows Burnett’s, went with the full shithole. Rachel Maddow, on MSNBC, said shithole in introducing the story and “bleep-hole” in subsequent references. Chris Matthews, on MSNBC, was the coyest of them all, stammering “That word ... a bad word ... it ends with -hole.” NPR used shithole, but only after an on-air warning.
In studio, caffeinated, & ready to leap upon the news like a broadcaster with a lifetime chance to say shithole on the air!— Scott Simon (@nprscottsimon) January 13, 2018
As for media outside the English-speaking world, translations for shithole ranged from the poetic – “where birds don’t lay eggs” (Taiwan), “beggars’ haunts” (South Korea) – to the euphemistic – “Drecksloch” (“dirthole”) in Germany; “achterlijke landen” (“backward countries”) in the Netherlands, “garbage countries” in several Arab-language papers – to the literal – “paesi merdosi” (shitty countries) in Italy, “trou de merde” in France. (For a comprehensive look at how shithole is being translated around the world, see James Harbeck’s post on the Strong Language blog.)
And the president? He said the media “distorted” his meaning, and he also said that shithole was just, you know, telling it like it is.
“He Tells It Like It Is," by Paul Noth, The New Yorker, August 29, 2016.
Shithole countries was, in short order, truncated to SHCs (by Glenn Beck and others); l’affaire de la merde inevitably became #ShitHoleGate. And it didn’t take long for someone – namely, CNN counterterrorism analyst Phil Mudd – to reclaim (or “ameliorate”) the term, calling himself a “proud shitholer” with ancestors from Ireland and Italy. (Two years ago, “deplorable” followed the same path from mark of shame to somewhat misguided badge of pride.)
Naturally, there’s merch. This tee is from Etsy.
From shitholer it was a short hop to the minced holer in Bret Stephens’s New York Times op-ed on Saturday, January 13: “Modify with any four letters you wish.”
Shit has been in our lexicon since Old English, but shithole is considerably more recent. Its first appearance in print was in a 1629 book of verse and song, Liber Lilliati, by J. Lilliat, a little masterpiece of alliteration.
“Six shitten shotes did I shoote in thy mowth that I shot from my shithole.” (Thanks to Kristina Killgrove for this excerpt.)
This shithole was a coarse synonym for rectum or anus – that is, the hole from which shit is expelled – and according to the OED that was the word’s only sense for three centuries, at least in print. At some point during the first quarter of the 20th century – my guess would be during World War I – soldiers began using shithole to mean “a wretched place.” A German novel about that war, The Cross Bearers, by Alexander Moritz Frey, was translated into English and published in 1930 with the line “But that will soon be over, he hopes; over as soon as he can get out of this ‘shit-hole’—the soldiers’ term which the officers adopt.” It may have been a direct translation of German Scheissloch.
The OED’s next citation will be familiar, sort of, to anyone who’s seen the great John Huston film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, starring Humphrey Bogart. The 1948 movie was based on a 1935 novel of the same name by the mysterious B.Traven, who was probably German. In a famous scene from the film, the bandit leader snarls, “I don’t have to show you any stinking badges.” That line is in the novel, too – originally published as Der Schatz der Sierra Madre – but it’s surrounded by some bilingual profanity:
"Badges, to god-damned hell with badges! We have no badges. In fact, we don't need badges. I don't have to show you any stinking badges, you god-damned cabrón [bastard] and ching' tu madre [fuck your mother]! Come out there from that shit-hole of yours. I have to speak to you."
World War II gave rise to a new sense of shithole: a toilet or (more likely) a latrine – a hole for shitting in, rather than out of. Derelicts of Company K, 1978 sociological study in a company of Japanese-American soldiers during World War II, includes a quote attributed to that period: “I hear Mike and Jerry fell into a shit hole last night!” And the Vietnam War era produced shithole as a synonym for asshole: a despicable person. Beginning in the mid-1960s the word was also seen as a modifier – as it is in shithole countries.
For more on the history shithole in print, see Ben Zimmer’s article in TheAtlantic.com, “Great Moments in ‘Shithole’ Literature.”