Drop an S-bomb today in polite conversation, and heads will likely turn. But back in the ninth century, “shit” referred to excrement in a matter-of-fact, not a vulgar, way. In the new book Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing, author Melissa Mohr explores how our opinion of this and other curse words have shifted over the years. In an interview with NPR, she delves into the history of “shit”:
It only really started to become obscene, I would say, during the Renaissance. … It basically involves increasing privacy. In the Middle Ages … when that word wasn’t obscene, people lived very differently. The way their houses were set up, there wasn’t space to perform a lot of bodily functions in private. So they would defecate in public, they had privies with many seats, and it was thought to be a social activity. That you would all get together on the privy and talk while you did this. … As the actual act became more taboo because you could do it in private now … the direct word became taboo.
The word itself likely arose from one or all of the Old English terms scite (dung), scitte (diarrhea) or scitan (to defecate). Middle English introduced schitte (excrement), schyt (diarrhea) and shiten (to defecate). Similar terms for the same thing eventually found their way into other languages as well, such as Sheisse (german), schijt (Dutch), skit (Swedish), skitur (Icelandic) and skitt (Norwgian).
As the Online Etymology Dictionary details, “shit” as a term related to excrement dates to at least the 1580s, though people had already adopted the term in reference for an “obnoxious person” by at least 1508.
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