Tag Archive | "Ship High in Transit"

The Origin of the Word

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In the days of the majestic tall ships, when Britannia ruled the waves, a mysterious set of circumstances occurred that would forever change, and indeed enhance, the color of the English language.  Several English merchant ships bound for the Colonies with supplies never reached their port of call.  The Bermuda Triangle lay hundreds of miles south of the ships’ courses, so it was not a matter of an inexplicable vortex sucking the ships beneath the waves.  And yet, they vanished mysteriously.  Their disappearance was of great concern to several parties, including insurance companies such as Lloyds of London, which had to pay out premiums against the lost cargo.  Teams were established and investigations were launched to determine the cause of the disappearance and hopefully, the whereabouts of the errant vessels.


The first thought was piracy, for theft upon the high seas was rather common in those days.  However, the investigators ruled out piracy.  Analysis of the ships’ manifests revealed that all of the missing craft bore the same cargo.  It was not gold, silver, precious gems or anything else that might tempt maritime looters.  It was fertilizer: manure needed for the cultivation of crops in America.


Further investigation proved that when fertilizer is moistened, it creates a chemical reaction that results in the generation of a toxic gas, called methane.  Thus, by simple deduction, the riddle was solved.  It was postulated that when the ships left port, the fertilizer was stowed in the holds, below decks.  During the voyage, water from the bilge seeped into the holds and slowly saturated the cargo. When sufficient methane gas built up in the cargo areas and the watchmen came to examine those areas on their rounds, the lamps they carried ignited the gas.  In the ensuing explosions, it was assumed that all the ships, and all hands aboard them, sank to their watery graves.


To solve this problem for future voyages, all fertilizer cargo had to be clearly labeled when stowing it aboard sailing vessels.  The labels read Ship High in Transit.  When reduced to an acronym, the caution spelled SHIT.  The farmers in the Colonies who received and made use of the product literally introduced the new word into their vocabulary and thus, into the American vernacular.


This word cannot be found in the present day Webster’s Dictionary, for a very simple reason and not the one that you may think.  It is not a holdover from a more Puritanical era, an effort to spare tender eyes from reading such a word.  The reason is that SHIT is not a word; it is an acronym.  The term does appear, however, as a translation in a foreign dictionary. The word stronzo in Italian (drop the last “o” for the proper pronunciation) translates in English as SHIT.  This is not to be confused with its synonym, merde (usage example: fedde merde, meaning, stinking SHIT), which the Italians borrowed from the French, who obviously knew a pile of horse manure when they saw, er, smelled it.


Since the birth of our nation, then, the term SHIT has been used both as a noun and in adjective form, the latter to emphasize certain untoward characteristics or conditions.  Although many a mother has sought to wash her child’s mouth out with soap when this word — heck, let’s call it a word — passed her child’s lips, it is endemic to the American language.  It bears and reflects a spirit that is uniquely American.  Down through the years, indeed the centuries, this word has infiltrated our tongue to the point where I feel that it should have an official place in the Webster’s Dictionary.


Like the ubiquitous “okay” (whose origin is African, by the way), SHIT transcends gender-related, age-related, cultural/ethnic, and religious differences.  For example, SHIT is one of the first words foreigners learn to say, as a sort of survival mechanism.  It comes in handy when they have yet to understand our money system and assume they are being bilked (“Don’t gimme none of that SHIT!”).  Folks hailing from the Deep South and The Hood pronounce it differently than do the rest of the country (“Sheee-it!”), but we all understand each other, nonetheless, for that is one of the beauties of the term; its meaning is readily comprehensible.  Moreover, the term is just about the one thing that both of our parties, Republican and Democrat, can agree upon as each one accuses the other of being full of SHIT.


“He fell in SHIT!” is used to denote a fortuitous happenstance.  “Woo, the SHIT hit the fan!” describes a less than optimum situation, equating to the cat being let out of the bag and/or all hell breaking loose.  And who among us above the age of 40 has trouble recalling that lovely and rather inane little ditty, The Name Game?, that never failed to tick our parents off?  In singing the song, one selects a proper name and makes it rhyme with other syllables.  Therefore, the name Kit was sung, “Kit, Kit, Bo Bit, Banana Fanna Fo Bit, Fee Fi, Mo’ SHIT, Kit!!”  In fact, I think the last bit of that lyric may have inspired at least one rap song, if not the stage name of an actual rapper or two (Mo’ SHIT and his brother, No SHIT).


The term even helped WWII GI’s face horrors beyond the battlefield; i.e., the mess hall.  The greatly shunned offering, Chipped Beef on Toast, was re-christened SHIT on a Shingle.  This SHIT can still be found in many eateries, particularly in Jersey diners.  In New York City and its five boroughs, however, it (and other things) is referred to as “SHIT on rye.”  If ever you are offered such a dish, my New York friends have advised me that it is de rigueur to inquire, “With seeds, or without?”


Now that you know the origin of the word, you are loaded for bear.  You can entertain people with this true tale of how SHIT came to be such a large part of our vernacular, indeed, our culture.  And, if push ever comes to shove, you can never be accused of knowing “Jack SHIT.”  Unless, of course, you never met the fellow! 

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