Chapter 3



Of the range of shit-constructions used in Australian English, only a relatively small number are discussed here. The first is the purely referential use of shit, exemplified by the following sentence:

(1) Male, 18: There's a big shit on the back step! (9/93)

The second meaning discussed is the expletive form shit!, as in the following:

(2) Female, ??: Oh shit! [on hearing of a car crash] (6/93)

A third usage of shit refers in a very general way to some object or state of affairs:

(3) Male, 50s: All the loose shit's gone out of it now! [referring to pages in a looseleaf folder] (7/93)

This form will be referred to as shit (stuff). These three meanings represent the majority of examples I have collected, and will form the major focus of discussion. There will also be a brief discussion of the forms bullshit, (having/getting) the shits, and kick the shit out of (someone/something), as used in the following examples:

(4) Male, 21: Look you, I'm not going to put up with this bullshit all day! (3/93)

(5) Female, 20: I was in a good mood before someone got the shits with me! (5/93)

(6) Female, 20: He's the fucking shithead who needs the shit kicked out of him! (3/93)


The constructions which are being examined here form only a small part of the overall group of meanings involving shit. Partridge (1984:1052-1054) lists over sixty combinations involving the use of shit in either its referential or emotive sense. While some of these may be archaic, doubtless others have evolved which remain unrecorded. Indeed, the continued creative evolution of terms involving shit has been noted in the literature. To give a simple example, Gaines (1948) describes the United States Army slang shitcan for "trashcan". Gilliland (1980) goes on to report that this term is still used, but has also been extended to a verbal form to shitcan, meaning "to discard in a speedy and permanent way". With such evolutions presumably often passing unnoted, capturing every single meaning is obviously impossible.

Nonetheless, the constructions selected here do appear to account for a large percentage of everyday uses of shit. In particular, the two forms Shit! and shit (stuff) readily lend themselves to a wide variety of situations and structures. This will become apparent in the following discussion.


3.3.1 Shit (referential)

Shit has a referential form both as a noun and a verb; the nominal usage will be the focus here, since the emotive expressions discussed here are related to shit (referential) when used as a noun rather than as a verb. To capture the basic meaning of shit (referential), we can commence by examining the meaning of the closely related lexeme faeces. Wierzbicka (1980:91) has proposed the following definition:

(7) faeces- something that having formed inside the body is caused to be outside the body passing through the anus

This seems quite an accurate representation of the meaning of faeces, with one reservation: the role of eating and digestion is neglected. The idea of faeces as a waste product also seems to merit consideration. The explication above also differs from current NSM work in not dividing the explication into components. These faults can be rectified by a few simple alterations:

(8) faeces

(a) something which forms inside the body

(b) this is formed from things that have been eaten

(c) this is caused to be outside the body by passing through the anus

(d) people could think: one can't do anything good with this kind of thing

Note the inclusion of component (d), which captures the idea that faeces is essentially a waste product, although this is qualified by could to allow for such uses as composting.

While this definition could no doubt be refined, the essential meaning of faeces has been captured. It also seems likely that the same basic components of meaning will be necessary to define terms such as shit, crap, turd, poo and so forth (childish terms such as poo-poo might lack component (b), since very young children seem unlikely to be aware of the physiological processes involved in excretion). The principle question of interest here is: how does the meaning of shit (referential) differ from those given above?

Allan & Burridge (1991:vii) argue that shit is more or less equivalent to any other excretory term:

The euphemistic 'Your dog went to the bathroom in my driveway!" describes an event that is equally well captured by 'Your dog shat in my driveway!'.

Allan & Burridge view the difference not as one of meaning but of context or dialect differentiation (1991:30). Context can, however, be seen as an element of meaning determination. While a given event might equally be described by either of the above sentences, this does not in itself make them equivalent in meaning; it makes them different descriptions of the same situation.

Lakoff (1975:26) also argues, and I agree, that the use of shit (referential) as opposed to a more technical or euphemistic term will be affected by social context. Shit (referential) will not be used in circumstances where the speaker is seeking to make a good impression, or feels unsure of their status within a group. This element of its meaning can be captured in an explication as follows:

(9) shit (referential)

(a) something which forms inside the body

(b) this is formed from things that have been eaten

(c) this is caused to be outside the body by passing through the anus

(d) people could think: one can't do anything good with this kind of thing

(e) people would say this is a bad thing to say

Component (e) is sufficient to account for why shit (referential) would not be used where the speaker is uncertain of other people's reactions, or where they are anxious not to "behave badly". The same structure would apply to the verbal form to shit, with alterations to account for its verbal nature.

3.3.2 Shit!

The expletive form Shit! has been discussed to some extent in the literature on swearing. Lakoff (1975:10), for instance, comments that

The difference betweeen using "shit" (or "damn", or one of many others) as opposed to "oh dear", or "goodness", or "oh fudge" lies in how forcefully one says how one feels.

While this seems entirely reasonable, Lakoff gives no indication of the precise nature of the difference between shit and any other term. While a full discussion of all such terms is outside our scope, one issue that will be of importance is the meaning difference between Shit! and Fuck!, which initially appear to be virtually synonymous.

Allan & Burridge (1990:30) argue that Shit! "typically expresses anger, frustration, or anguish". Similarly, Montagu (1967:317) describes Shit! as "an expletive in response to frustration, disgust or dismay" Neither work gives any explanation as to how one is to determine which of these emotions is being expressed on any particular occasion, or whether more than one is being felt at once. Typical emotions for the use of Shit! are captured, but not the prototypical reactions which evoke it. The same applies to Staley (1978:375), who gives elicited possible meanings for Shit! as "I'm disappointed and angered", "let's forget it" and "damn it to hell", among others.

Clearly, then, a more precise definition of Shit! is required. To begin with, consider the following examples:

(10) Male, 18: Shit! [on hearing of a young marriage] (5/93)

(11) Female, 18: Oh shit, sorry! [on spilling drink] (7/93)

(12) Female, ??: Shit! [reaction to accidentally dialling wrong phone number] (Full Frontal, Ch. 7-TV, 17/6/93)

(13) Male, 30s: Shit that hurt! [when hit in side of face] (The Late Show, ABC-TV, 31/7/93)

(14) Male, ??: He shouted "Holy shit, oh my God I'm coming!" (Australian Forum #4.8, 1993, p. 24)

(15) Female, 22: "Shit," I thought, "I'm going to have to swallow". (Australian Women's Forum #15, February 1993, p. 65)

(16) Male, 28: Shit, I've got a game today [a reaction of disbelief and wonder after learning of a friend's death] (Inside Sport #N20, p. 28)

(17) Male, ??: Shit I wished I'd of kept my mouth shut [when faced with a paternity suit] (Australian Forum #4.8, 1993, p. 20)

While it is obvious that a negative emotional reaction is being expressed in all these cases, finding a common element between shock, clumsiness, incompetence, orgasm, mourning and annoyance may at first appear rather difficult.

Nonetheless, I would argue that all these situations can be encapsulated in the notion of what might roughly be called surprise. This is particularly obvious in examples (10), (11), (13), (14), (15) and (17). In (12), the ordinary competence of the telephone user makes the dialling of a wrong number surprising, while in (16), it is the horror of death which makes ordinary events seem surprising.

Accordingly, I would propose the following definition for Shit!:

(18) Shit!

(a) Sometimes a person thinks something like this:

(b) Something has happened

(c) I didn't think this would happen

(d) I didn't want this

(e) This person feels something bad because of this

(f) I am feeling something like this now

(g) I say: {Shit!}

(h) People would think this is a bad thing to say

(i) I say this because I want to say how I feel

Component (a) sets up the idea of a prototypical situation. Within this sitution, component (b) shows how Shit! is used in response to some event. While this is often a "bad" situation in itself, it need not be, as example (e) above shows. Component (c) is a more precise expression of the notion of surprise which is central to the meaning ofShit! Having classified the situation as unlikely to occur, the speaker then goes on to see it as undesirable (component (d)). Component (e) captures the negative emotional reaction which is also obviously important.

Component (f) closes the prototypical frame. By representing the speaker as feeling "something like this", the possibility of Shit! being used without negative intent is allowed, while its basically negative character is retained.

Hence, the use of Shit! as an exclamation at, for instance, a particularly beautiful sight from nature, is not excluded by this analysis. This pattern of using supposedly derogatory terms in a positive light is not restricted to Shit!, and suggests the existence of a general principle governing such usages. This will be taken up in Section 6.1.4. The use of "now" in component (f) also captures the immediacy of the expletive reaction.

Component (g) represents the actual utterance, while (i) contains the illocutionary purpose: the expression of an emotional reaction. As shit! is a relatively common swearword in public forums such as television, the negative reaction to it has been downplayed in component (h) by using "think" rather than "say".

I will delay further detailed discussion of the meaning of Shit! until an explication has also been proposed for Fuck! (see Section 4.3.2), since the two are closely related semantically. It is perhaps worth noting, though, that the assessment "I didn't think this would happen" is highly relative to context. Returning again to example (14), it seems unlikely that the quoted speaker never expected to reach orgasm; it is simply unexpected at the moment of utterance. The brevity of the expletive becomes important here; it expresses a situational reaction, and situations can change rapidly.

3.3.3 Shit (stuff)

Shit (stuff) represents one of the more elusive swearwords in current use. Indeed, the label I have given it supplies no clue as to the meaning it conveys, other than its basic nominal character. It can be used in a wide range of contexts, though there appears to have been no detailed discussion of its meaning in the scholarly literature. Yet it forms a frequent element in many ordinary Australian conversations.

The general use of shit (stuff) is exemplified by the following examples.

(19) Male, 20: Fuckin' surfie shit, jeez [on the design of an unattractive jumper] (3/93)

(20) Male, 18: I don't like spoof and shit all over it [discussing the condition of his bedsheets] (5/93)

(21) I thought this sort of shit only happened in yuppie danceclubs. (Hot Metal #53, July 1993, p. 31)

(22) No one who reads this magazine wants to hear your shit. (Hot Metal #53, July 1993, p. 31)

(23) Male, 30s: I'm too old for this shit! (The Late Show, ABC-TV, 31/7/93)

From the examples, we can deduce that shit (stuff) can be applied to events, opinions and objects. It appears to be largely mutually substitutable with the noun "stuff", although a definite change in meaning is involved. It also seems to be frequently used in a generic context, referring to types of things as much as individual objects. Furthermore, it appears to be assumed that the speaker's audience is aware of what class of things is being referred to, as this is not spelled out.

The judgement embodied in shit (stuff), which distinguishes it from a more neutral term like "stuff", appears to be an entirely negative one in the examples given so far. This, however, need not always be the case. In the following examples, the negative character of shit (stuff) is much less pronounced (the first is reproduced from the beginning of the chapter):

(25) Male, 50s: All the loose shit's gone out of it now! [referring to pages in a looseleaf folder] (7/93)

(26) Male, 30s: There's a fair bit of shit in a lot of blokes [embodying the assessment "nobody's perfect"] (Inside Sport #N20, p. 109)

In the explication, therefore, the negative judgement will need to be rather carefully defined. This wide range of available "syntactic slots" also means that the meaning associated with shit (stuff), likeShit!, must be fairly general and applicable to a range of concepts. The following explication meets all the necessary requirements:

(27) shit (stuff)

(a) I'm thinking about something

(b) I think: this kind of thing is a bad thing

(c) you know the kind of thing I am thinking about

(d) I say: {... shit ...}

(e) People would think this is a bad thing to say

(f) I say this because I don't want to say something good about this thing

This explication allows for the use of shit (stuff) in both markedly negative and only mildly critical situations. Component (b) captures the idea that the type of thing being referred to is both negative and generic. Component (c) captures the assumption that the listener knows what is being referred to. In contrast to (b), component (e) merely refers to the object as not being good, rather than explicitly being bad. This fits well with the conversational, almost dismissive contexts in which shit (stuff) appears to be used.

Component (d) is phrased in terms of what people would think, and not what they would say. I have phrased the component in this way because shit (stuff) appears to be a particularly mild form of disparagement, and one which frequently features on television with little apparent backlash. The social judgements against its use accordingly appear to be fairly mild.

3.3.4 Bullshit

Of all the swearwords considered in this study, bullshit is unique in having already been the subject of a study by Anna Wierzbicka within the NSM framework (Wierzbicka 1992c). We can therefore begin with an examination of this definition:

(28) bullshit

(a) I know: some people say many things

(b) one can't know anything because of these things

(c) they want other people to think that they say something good

(d) other people think this

(e) I don't want to be like these other people

(f) I don't want to think things that people want me to think

(g) when I think about it I feel something bad

(h) because of this, I want to say something that people think is a bad thing to say

One major change I feel is necessary is to bring the final part of the explication in line with the others proposed here. I also feel, contra Wierzbicka, that the use of bullshit is not solely motivated by the desire to swear, but also expresses the speaker's thoughts and attitudes. A more general problem with this explication is that the different referents of it and this throughout are not always clear. I would therefore propose the following changes:

(29) bullshit

(a) I know: some people say many things

(b) one can't know anything because of these things

(c) they want other people to think that they say something good

(d) other people think these people say something good

(e) I don't want to be like these other people

(f) I don't want to think things that people want me to think

(g) when I think about this I feel something bad

(h) I say: {bullshit}

(i) Other people would say this is a bad thing to say

(j) I say this because I want to say something bad, and I want people to know what I think

Wierzbicka's definition captures fairly well the sense of bullshit referring to, roughly, the spurious production of knowledge, as represented in the following sentence (or in (4) at the beginning of the chapter):

(30) Female, 22: Have you got a bucket to catch all the bullshit? (5/93)

There appears to be, however, another sense of bullshit, which represents a more straightforward denial of the truth of an assertion:

(31) Male, 18: Oh bullfuck, bullshit! [on hearing an untruth] (3/93)

The two senses can be distinguished easily on syntactic grounds: bullshit as a denial of truth is used as an exclamation, and hence will be represented here as bullshit!. This second sense can be roughly explicated as follows:

(32) bullshit!

(a) Somebody has said something

(b) I don't think this is true

(c) I feel something because of this

(d) I say: {bullshit!}

(e) Other people would say this is a bad thing to say

(f) I say this because I want to say I think this thing is untrue

In line with its exclamatory character, this explication has two simple components, a recognition and a denial, in place of the more complex structure of explication (29). The illocutionary purpose, the denial of truth, is also more straightforward than in the full nominal use. While there is an obvious link between the two senses of bullshit, separate explications are required to fully capture the meaning in each case.

3.3.5 Shit (offence): You shit me/give me the shits/have got the shits

Displeasure with another individual is widely expressed in Australian English through the linked constructions You shit me, You give me the shits and (Someone) has/got the shits. These can be referred to collectively as shit (offence) constructions for purposes of exposition. They should not be confused with the referential expression I've got the shits referring to diarrhoea, which I will not discuss here.

The following are some typical examples of shit (offence) constructions (one is reproduced from the beginning of the chapter):

(33) Female, 30s: Did you ever realise you shit me? (Fast Forward, Prime-TV, 1990)

(34) Female, 20: I was in a good mood before someone got the shits with me! (5/93)

An explication of the semantic core of shit (offence) constructions reads as below:

(35) shit (offence)

(a) I'm thinking about X

(b) I think X has done something bad

(c) I feel something bad because of this

(d) I don't think X should do these things

(e) I would want X to know how I feel

(f) I say: {... shit-offence construction ...}

(g) People would say this is a bad thing to say

(h) I say this because I want to say how X has made me feel

All the examples given above in fact involve the speaker directly addressing X, which suggests that the function of shit (offence) constructions is both to chastise and to vent feeling, and this is captured in component (e). However, it would appear perfectly possible to use the expression in the absence of X, in reporting one's feelings to a third party. Accordingly, component (h) has been phrased in such a way that X's role is made clear, without the comment necessarily being directed to X.

It remains possible that meaning differences could be discerned between the different shit (offence) constructions. All three, however, do appear to share the core meaning explicated above. As such, they share the property that, while the original construction may have been motivated by the link between the unpleasantness of shit (referential) and the unpleasantness of the situation, there is no direct reflection of the referential meaning in the semantic structure.

3.3.6 To kick/punch the shit out of someone

To kick (or to punch) the shit out of someone was mentioned in Section 1.2.2 as a construction which potentially blurred the distinction between referential and emotive swearwords. The chief aim of this section is to consider whether this is actually the case. The following are representative examples of the construction (again, one is reproduced from earlier in the chapter):

(36) Female, 20: He's the fucking shithead who needs the shit kicked out of him! (3/93)

(37) Female, 22: Fucking shut up or I'll punch the shit out of you! (6/93)

Differences between the kick and punch versions of the construction are largely a function of the semantics of these verbs, and hence I will not explore this difference further here. It is possible to exchange them in the above sentences with no appreciable difference in meaning as far as the shit element is concerned. On their own, however, these sentences do not appear to demonstrate conclusively the presence or absence of a referential component.

Consider, then, the following example:

(38) I kicked the shit out of him and then swept it up.

While this sentence is hardly unacceptable, its mildly humourous effect appears to result from the extension of its meaning from an emotive to a referential context, which is not normally present in the construction. Further, it does not seem possible to construct a sentence such as

(39) ??I kicked the faeces out of him

without giving the impression of bizarre humour. I therefore conclude that the basic meaning of to kick the shit out of someone does not incorporate the referential meaning of shit. While this may have been present when the construction was first used, its use in Australian English has become standardised to the point where only emotive components are present.

It is worth noting also that both actual examples given are in the future tense i.e. they represent the speaker's desire for later action (which may or may not be realised). However, presumably the construction could also be used in a "reportage" context:

(40) They beat the shit out of him.

This suggests that the use of a shit construction is a means of encoding the strength of the speaker's feeling, of the kind of physical violence which appears appropriate under the circumstances.

A rough explication for the construction (in its first person future form) might accordingly read as follows:

(41) I'm going to kick/punch the shit out of X

(a) I'm thinking about X

(b) I feel something bad because of this

(c) I want to do something very bad to X's body because of this

(d) I say: {I'm going to kick/punch the shit out of X}

(e) Other people would say this is a bad thing to say

(f) I say this because I want people to know how I feel

Some important points to note about this explication are the direct but still general reference to physical attack in component (c), and the fact that the precise cause of the speaker's displeasure is not specified beyond an association with a particular person (component (a)). Note also that component (e) uses the phrasing "other people"; only in a cultural sub-group where violence is acceptable would such an expression be likely to be used. In component (f), the phrasing "I want people to know how I feel" rather than the more general "I want to say how I feel" captures the intuition that the construction marks a very public declaration of strong emotion.


In the preceding sections, I argued that there is no association between the referential and emotive meanings of shit discussed, other than their shared surface form.

Nonetheless, shit seems to be widely used in expressions which perhaps orginally derived their meaning from the interplay between referential and emotive meanings. In addition to the examples given already, the following constructions also display similar tendencies:

(42) Male, 28: Talking about it bores me shitless. (Inside Sport #N20, pp. 29-30)

(43) Male, ??: The guy was huge, at least six-foot-three, and built like a brick shithouse. (Australian Playgirl #1, April 1993, p. 22)

(44) Male, 18: If you had a real shitty day . . . (5/93)

(45) Male, 40s: I'm big, I'm beautiful, I don't give a shit! (Sex, Ch. 9-TV, 10/6/93)

While a full explication would be needed to make a definite claim, it seems to me in each case here also that any link between referential and emotive meanings has been eliminated as the expression becomes formulaic. It seems highly unlikely, for instance, that the speaker in (42) really feels a sense of constipation to match his boredom. The greater tendency for shit to be used in this "metaphorical" way than fuck reflects, I think, the greater obscenity levels associated with fuck, which makes it less accessible to public word play. It may also reflect the fact that fucking is a highly personal experience which is not universally accessible while shitting is (presumably) much the same experience for everyone, and a necessary part of continued existence. Metaphorical uses need a common ground for the metaphor to succeed.

These speculations aside, it does not seem possible, with the constructions explicated, to unify the referential and emotive explications in any useful way. In another important sense, however, the semantics of emotive shit constructions are all linked by the extreme generality of the prototypical situations they encode. Consider the basic contextual component from each of the explications given above:

(46) Shit!: Something has happened

shit (stuff): I'm thinking about something

bullshit: some people say many things

bullshit!: somebody has said something

shit (offence): I'm thinking about X

to kick the shit out of someone: I'm thinking about someone

In each case, the only restriction placed on the word is that it refers either to someone or something. The shit-constructions explicated here are thus all able to be used in reference to almost any situation or individual, although their status as swearwords will provide a necessary social restriction. That this generality is not a feature of all swearwords will become apparent in subsequent chapters.

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