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I'm reading a book, The Known World by Edward P. Jones. It is a very well written book about Black slave owners before the Civil War, that is, freed slaves who went on to own slaves themselves.

The book is written with a lot of Southern and Black vernacular which I find very convincing. But I was really jarred on reading the following exchange in chapter 7:

“Where he say?” the man asked the boy softly.

“Georgia. Where your damn ears?”

The man touched both his earlobes at once and said, “Where they always been.”

“Well, act like it. He said Georgia clear as the damn day and you didn’t even hear him. You closer to him than I am and you still didn’t hear him.” For the very first time ever, Counsel missed the evenings with his family, Laura playing the piano, Belle reading to the younger children. Make up your mind, God, that’s all I ask.

“You can go eat shit, boy,” the man said. “Pick up your goddamn spoon and eat shit.”

I first heard that phrase as a teenager, and just assumed it was made up sometime shortly before or during my lifetime. Reading it in a book set in the mid-1800s felt like I had stumbled on an anachronism. I wondered when the phrase was actually first used in English (and thought, "I know the place to ask.")

I knew shit was an old word (as a noun, since 1580s, as a verb, even earlier then that), but how old is the phrase "eat shit"?

Marginalia in illuminated manuscripts were sometimes very irreverent, and I have seen some with eating of feces depicted, so it seems entirely possible that this was not an unknown phrase. Also, Sir John Harington in The metamorphosis of Ajax: a cloacinean satire (1596) makes a punitive fantasy of coprophagia, in feeding "poore hungrie fellowes” "all the fat offerings" made in London's privies. So... it is possible that it's very olde.

I don't like vulgarity; please forgive me. I was just really taken by surprise by coming across the phrase in a very well-written book. I don't mean to bring EL&U down. But if Jonathan Swift can use the word in a poem, I think it's fair game here.

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    @Mitch: You're certainly a cheeky sod! Funny, but cheeky! – rhetorician Jan 26 '16 at 0:29
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    The earliest viewable match that Google Books finds for the exact two-word phrase is from 1949 in A.I. Bezzerides, Thieves Market. A couple of months ago, I happened to see the movie based on this novel, called Thieves Highway (also 1949), directed by Jules Dassin. It's excellent—however, the screenplay doesn't included the fateful expletive in the dialogue. – Sven Yargs Jan 26 '16 at 5:41
  • @SvenYargs: I found This House Against this House, Vincent Sheean, p 317, Random House, 1946 with ("What can you do with a people who eat shit?" the American soldier says; and the habits of the Hindus with cow dung are perhaps the most specific shock of all these I am enumerating.) – Henry Jan 26 '16 at 7:37
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I restricted my search to 'eat shit', although I included that phrase with the variant spellings 'shite', 'sh*t', 'sh-t', and 's--t', where possible. I also included the various inflections of 'eat'.

A troublesome instance in Supplemental Nights, 1888 (R.F. Burton), returned from a search for 'eat shite', footnoted "to eat skite" (as meaning "to talk or act foolishly") in reference to text reading "devour ordure":

enter image description here enter image description here

The OED Online does not give 'skite' as a variant spelling of 'shite'.

The earliest unalloyed figurative use I uncovered was from a novel titled The Folded Leaf, published in 1945. This text clip is the excerpt from Google Books results:

eat shit

The next appearance was not visually verifiable, as it occurred in a "restricted rights" novel about life in the infantry, Toward an Unknown Station (Allan Lyon), published in 1948:

"You eat shit," Ben told him. "Goldbricking while I work my ass off!" We all helped him hide his cache, and then we settled down happily to wait for chow, thinking of the stolen feast we would enjoy later in the afternoon.


Regarding the appearance of 'shit' (absent 'eat') in print prior to 1900, J. Wright, in The English dialect dictionary, volume 5 (EDD), compiled a fair-sized collection of dialect uses from the 1600s through the 1800s, some dated. These are clippings of the primary entries:

eatshit4 eatshit5

Nowhere in Wright's collection, neither in Volume 5's main entries nor in Volume 2's entries for 'eat', did I find the 'eat shit' phrase.

Eric Partridge, in his annotated 1963 edition of the third edition of F. Grose's A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (full text not available; the link is to the 1796 edition of Grose), provides a good summary of the use of 'shit' in the early 1900s. In the snapshot below this paragraph, Partridge's historical summary begins with "--In 1914-1918 ...", and his summary of the senses found in EDD appears after "--Dialect has many ...". The surrounding material in Partridge's annotation is based on information from the Oxford Dictionary (OD).

eatshit6


Regarding other negative results, the phrase 'eat shit' did not appear in my searches of

  • The Slang Dictionary, 1865 (Hotten)
  • The American Slang Dictionary, 1891 (Maitland)
  • A dictionary of slang, jargon & cant embracing English, American, and Anglo-Indian slang, pidgin English, gypsies' jargon and other irregular phraseology, 1897 (Barrère)
  • A new dictionary of the terms ancient and modern of the canting crew, in its several tribes, of Gypsies, beggers, thieves, cheats, &c., with an addition of some proverbs, phrases, figurative speeches, &c., 1899 (Gent)
  • A new dictionary of Americanisms; being a glossary of words supposed to be peculiar to the United States and the dominion of Canada, 1902? (Clapin)
  • A Dictionary of Slang and Colloquial English, 1921 and 1909, original issue 1890 (Farmer & Henley; I checked both the abridged, 1921, and the seven-volume revised edition, 1909)

Of those, I could expect with a reasonable degree of certainty that if the phrase 'eat shit' had much currency in English prior to the 1900s, it would've been likely to appear in Farmer & Henley.


Altogether,

  1. the absence of the phrase 'eat shit' in Wright's apparently comprehensive dialect collection,
  2. as well as Partridge's failure to mention the phrase in his annotation of Grose,
  3. along with the phrase's non-appearance in any of the six other sources in the bulleted list (including especially Farmer & Henley),
  4. and the OED's earliest attesting quote being 1955 (unless you count 'crap' in 1930),

suggest that, with the troublesome exception of Burton's footnote, the earliest appearance in print of 'eat shit' may be the use in the 1945 novel, The Folded Leaf.

Nonetheless, it is unreasonable to suppose that 1945 use is, in fact, the earliest appearance of the phrase in print; the 1945 use is merely the earliest print appearance I could uncover with a limited set of resources.

Further, aside from appearance in print, the use of the phrase 'eat shit' in dialectal speech before the 1900s, even dialectal speech in antebellum Virginia, is not unreasonable--merely unlikely.

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In print, people may not have been ordering others to eat shit before the 1940s, but the euphemistic expression eat dung is much older.

Ngram plots “eat dung” (red line) starting from 1800s

enter image description here

When a few days after the Rais (one of the mullahs who watch over the people, and have power to flog any one who does not observe strictly the Muhammedan religion) sent one of his friends to Stoddart and asked him whether he was an Eljee (ambassador) or a Sodagur (merchant)? Stoddart replied “Eat dung!”

His imprisonment upon this occasion the Nayeb passed over in silence, and continued, At last from fear, Stoddart said he would become a Mussulman, and according to the Muhammedan religion, if a person says he will turn Mussulman, he must either do so or die. He became a Mussulman and a short time after openly avowed again the Christian religion.

Narrative of a Mission to Bokhara, in the Years 1843-1845 (1845) By Joseph Wolff

Other instances of “eat dung” appear in Isaiah 36:12, the excerpt dated 1808 describes what will befall Jerusalem if it were besieged.

enter image description here

From 1631, A commentarie upon all the Epistles of the Apostle Saint Paul, etc.

(Link) enter image description here

Only the feare of fornication is the cause of this grant. As if a man were directed to eat bread made of fine wheat flower, but being pinched with hunger through the want hereof, and so ready to eat dung, it were permitted to him (rather than doe so) to eat barley bread. And it is to be noted, that he faith not, Let every man marry a wife, but Let him have his owne wife.

Finally, if one looks at the etymology of dirt one finds that it originally meant excrement (probably the human kind) and the verb, to defecate.

15c. metathesis of Middle English drit, drytt "mud, dirt, dung" (c. 1300), from Old Norse drit, cognate with Old English dritan "to void excrement," from Proto-Germanic *dritan (cognates: Dutch drijten, Old High German trizan). Used abusively of persons from c. 1300.

The Dictionary of American Slang's entry for “eat dirt” says

To accept rebuke or harassment meekly; swallow one's pride; eat shit: I ate dirt and apologized to that bastard (1857+)

The two word phrase eat dirt was therefore a mid-nineteenth century euphemism for the more obscene shit, and the explicit dung; however its power to shock and offend has decreased over the years, and it is probably for this reason that the author Edward P. Jones substituted the chronological (but now tame) eat dirt with its more shocking, and taboo counterpart.

Google Ngram shows that the idiom eat dirt ! (blue line) dominates over eat dung (red line) but is rarely used nowadays compared to more recently coined, and cruder, eat shit (green line).

enter image description here

It goes without saying that eat dirt! can be taken literally and figuratively, and it needn't always refer to excrement—dirt also means "soil"—but it's worthwhile noting its peak between 1840 and 1860.

An excerpt from Hammel, the Obeah Man. 1827

“ ... Begone! The ants shall gnaw your bones, and the vultures struggle for your flesh ! I curse you by the spirits of earth and of hell ! Your joints shall be rottenness, and you shall eat dirt like the worms !—Tremble, and begone !”

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The expression appears to be from the second half of the 19th century.

Eat shit:

  • Also, eat crap. Submit to degrading treatment, as in He refused to eat shit from the coach. James T. Farrell had the one term in Grandeur (1930), “They don't eat nobody's crap,” and Mario Puzo the other in Dark Arena (1955), “He'd eaten shit all week.” (second half of 1800s)

The American Heritage Idioms Dictionary

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    @Josh - What does your emboldened italicised '1800s' comment refer to? – Dan Jan 25 '16 at 22:53
  • books.google.it/… 1949 from Google Ngram. – Mari-Lou A Jan 25 '16 at 23:45
  • I wonder whether "eat crap" was a euphemism. It lacks sufficient force imho. – Al Maki Jan 26 '16 at 0:37
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    @Dan - It is not my comment, if you click in the red link in my answer you can see it is an information provided by the cited source. – user66974 Jan 26 '16 at 9:05
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The words "eat shit", used in the sense of "Go to Hell!", first appear in Ngram in the 50s.

But, as it's a fairly rude phrase, it's use, prior to the "let it all hang out" 60s, was probably rarely recorded on durable media, even if it was spoken with fair frequency.

(Speaking as someone born in 1949, I never got the impression that the expression was somehow "new". I had a fairly sheltered youth, but I did hear it on occasion.)

One does need to be a little careful about "sightings", though, as the words can appear in a context such as "I didn't eat shit for three days and I was incredibly hungry when I finally got to the camp."

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