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.