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I was drawn to the word aw-shucks appearing in the following paragraph of the latest article which I forgot to take note of the source:

“You know, I’m new to this campaign. Honestly, I never thought I would be standing here. I thought I would be spending this evening with all my friends in the great state of Indiana,” Indiana Gov. Mike Pence said in his RNC debut tonight. His aw-shucks approach went over well with delegates outraged by Ted Cruz’s refusal to endorse GOP nominee Donald Trump earlier in the night.

I was totally unfamiliar with the word “aw-shucks,” and found out the following definition in the free dictionary:

awshucks adj. seeming to be modest, self-deprecating, or shy: [C20: from the US interjection aw shucks, an expression of modesty or diffidence] Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged, 12th Edition 2014

Google Ngram shows that the word emerged in mid 1940, and its usage has been on a rapid increase to 0.00000136% level in 2000.

I’m curious to know the currency level and origin of this word. Does this word often apper in conversation and writings? How did the word that sounds as if like the exclamation, “Oh shock” come into American, informal, and in particular, adjective word?

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    It's actually two words -- "aw" and "shucks". "Aw" is just a sort of embarrassed interjection and is essentially onomatopoeia. "Shucks" (which is not the same as "shuck") is hard to define, but roughly means "it ain't nothing". I've no idea what the etymology of "shucks" is. The words easily go back 100 years. – Hot Licks Sep 18 '16 at 2:34
  • I’ve now supplied separate citations from Merriam-Webster, from Oxford University Press, and from one other published (read: in print, not online) source that this is in origin a minced oath. Hope this helps. – tchrist Sep 18 '16 at 15:23
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“Aw shucks, we still don’t know squat!”

When I first read your question, my reaction was that surely this must be explained in every dictionary. But you know what? It isn’t! That must make it confusing to the non-native speaker. The short story is that shucks is a euphemism for shit, making “aw shucks” a watered-down version of “oh shit” that has long ago lost its harsh overtones.

The Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories, Merriam-Webster, 1991

The Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories (published by Merriam-Webster, 1991) explains its origin as a euphemism at length on page 249:

All languages and cultures seem to have words or practices that are taboo and hence are not mentioned in polite society. Perhaps because of the shock produced when such words are used, many of them have come to function as interjections, the meaning of which is subordinated to their emotional impact. Another result of the social restrictions against using taboo words is the creation of euphemisms that can be used more freely, though naturally much of the intended force may be lost of this substitution.

[...]

As can be seen from many of the examples above, the initial sounds of the taboo words are often retained, and the euphemism is created by changing other parts of the word or by using other words that are not taboo and which begin with the same sounds. Thus we have darn and darnation as euphemism for damn and damnation. Shoot used as an interjection is a euphemism for shit, as are shucks and sugar.

Wikipedia

Wikipedia tells the same story under its entry for shit, albeit more briefly:

The word shit (also shite in British and Hiberno-English) is usually avoided in formal speech. Minced oath substitutes for the word shit in English include shoot, shucks, and "sugar".

So it’s a simple story though, really. The word shucks falls into the category of a minced oath, much like gosh, darn, dang, heck, shoot, crud, frick, and so many others. That is, it originated (quoting Wikipedia here) as

...a euphemistic expression formed by misspelling, mispronouncing, or replacing a part of a profane, blasphemous, or taboo term to reduce the original term's objectionable characteristics.

English Lexicogenesis, Oxford University Press, 2014

On page 122 of English Lexicogenesis (Oxford University Press, 2014) D. Gary Miller writes, placing its origin at 1843:

Certain body parts are suspect to tabu replacement; cf. butt(ocks) [a.1300], rear (end) [1851], posterior [1605], derrière [1774], gluteus maximum [n.d.]. Among bodily functions, there are such euphemistic deformation as shucks [1843], shoot [1934] for shit, and even dipstick [1968] for ‘penis’ and for dipshit [1963].

Expletive Deleted: A Good Look at Bad Language, Free Press, 2005

One page 100 of Expletive Deleted: A Good Look at Bad Language (Free Press, 2005), Ruth Wajnryb writes:

Once again, the word is serving a multitude of master. In addition, the euphemisms that can replace SHIT (“sugar,” “shoot,” “shucks,” etc.) serve both the general positive use and the negative ones. If ever we needed an example of how meaning is achieved through particular circumstance, SHIT is it.

The positive and negative of uses of shucks exactly match those of shit, as Wajnryb rightly points out.


You can see where it comes from when you see it in phrases like the example given by Oxford Dictionaries Online for it:

  • “Thank you for getting it.” “Oh, shucks, it was nothing.”

Or from Collins:

  • Because he was worried about his diary – shucks, only a notebook, really – he took it with him.
    —Trenhalle, John A MEANS TO EVIL

Collins defines this as

something of little value (esp. in the phrase not worth shucks)

By now you have probably correctly surmised that it’s used exactly the same way that shoot often is. In other words, this usage originated as a minced oath for shit, although no one thinks anything profane, taboo, or rude by it any longer. That’s what happens with minced oaths: they lose their rudeness.

Interjection versus Negative Polarity Item

You might feel that the injection Aw shucks! is somehow different from the negative polarity item found in not worth shucks. Although the low-level part-of-speech classification as an interjection differs from the one in which it occurs as a negative polarity item, there’s no reason to think those have separate origins.

Interjection

  • No shit.
  • Oh shit.
  • Aw shit, it’s nothing to me.
  • Aw shucks, it’s nothing to me.

Negative Polarity Item

  • That idea isn’t worth shit.
  • That idea isn’t worth shucks.
  • That idea isn’t worth squat.
  • That idea isn’t worth doodly-squat.
  • That idea isn’t worth diddly-squat.
  • That idea isn’t worth diddly.

By the time you get to the bottom, the taboo origin can appear to be completely lost. But the matter of using shucks as both injection and a linked negative polarity item is the same one of using shit as both those things. As Professor observed:

Despite the considerable progress that has been achieved over the last two decades, the bad news is that we know squat about the proper treatment of negation and polarity. But then, by the Law of the Excluded Middle, the good news must be that we don't know squat about the proper treatment of negation and polarity.

—Laurence R. Horn, “Flaubert Triggers, Squatitive Negation, and Other Quirks of Grammar.” Perspectives on Negation and Polarity Items, ed. Jacob Hoeksema et al. John Benjamins, 2001)

Pronunciation: Aw shucksAw shocks

One last thing: in your question you mentioned “aw shock”. However, shock will never be pronounced the same as shuck. The most common pronunciation of shock in North America is probably /ʃɑk/, although both /ʃɔk/ and /ʃɒk/ also occur frequently enough. That variation is due to various mergers between the vowels in Wells’ canonical lexical sets LOT, CLOTH, and THOUGHT in the many dialects of North American.

Those are the wrong lexical sets for shucks though. The pronunciation of shucks is /ʃʌks/. That means it has the STRUT vowel.

At the risk of being crude, that means that shucks rhymes with fucks, a taboo word. My own conjecture is that shucks as a euphemism for shit owes some of its appeal to the way it takes not only the front-end of shit but also the back-end of fucks, thereby doubling its allusion.

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    Does it have anything to do with corn shucks? – aparente001 Sep 18 '16 at 4:34
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    Do you have any references for its link to shit? Both the OED and etymonline link it directly to corn shucks. Since those are quite useless, that seems like a very reasonable etymology without any shit or any other oaths. Minced or not. – terdon Sep 18 '16 at 14:04
  • @terdon References—and elaboration—now duly supplied. :) – tchrist Sep 18 '16 at 15:21
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    I can't quite grasp the exact intended meaning from the quote in the question, but by far the most common colloquial use of aw shucks in my experience is to express slight embarrassment and overwhelmedness at being complemented: “Wow, this lasagne is absolutely divine!” — “Aw, shucks, it's not that good!”. That doesn't seem minced to me, and replacing it with shit completely changes the meaning. I feel fairly certain the OED is right about that usage at least—perhaps the two different usages really are different, or one arose on the basis of the other. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 18 '16 at 20:39
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    @tchrist I don't see any reason to think the two etymologies are mutually exclusive. Minced oaths are not uncommonly based on actual words, rather than just simple modifications, especially if the meaning is appropriate. Shoot and shucks are both reasonable candidates to be used as euphemisms for shit, but shibboleth or Shivananda wouldn't be very obvious choices. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 18 '16 at 21:14
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Two new entries in the OED [OED Third Edition (November 2010) - new entry; OED Online version June 2016] provide information on the development and origins of the interjection and adjective, 'aw shucks' (as well as 'aw-shucks', the verb derived from the interjection). The origin and etymology given for the interjection and adjective is

Origin: Formed within English, by compounding. Etymons: aw int., shucks, shuck n.2 3.
Etymology: < aw int. + shucks (see shuck n.2 3).

["aw shucks, int. and adj.". OED Online. September 2016. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/250153 (accessed September 18, 2016).]

The definition of the 'aw' part of the compound is the uncomplicated "An exclamation usually expressing mild remonstrance, entreaty, commiseration, disgust, or disapproval." For 'shucks', the situation is less simple.

shuck, n.2
Forms: Also shock.
Frequency (in current use): ++++....
Etymology: Origin unknown.
Chiefly dial. and U.S.
....
1. a. A husk, pod, or shell; esp. the outer covering or strippings of Indian corn, chestnuts, hickory nuts, etc. See corn-shuck n. b. [etc.]
....
2. As a type of something valueless.
....
3. pl. as an interj. of contempt or indifference.

The progression from sense 1 to 3 suggests the line of development. Sense 1 refers to relatively valueless material. Sense 2 references the general type, 'valueless'. Sense 3 documents the use, in the plural, as an interjection expressing the idea of valuelessness.

For Sense 3, 'shucks' the plural as an interjection, the earliest attestation in OED is 1847. For the interjection 'aw', the earliest attestation in OED is 1852.

For the compound, 'aw shucks', the earliest attestation for use as an interjection is 1888; the earliest attestation for use as an adjective is 1932. This development, from earlier interjection to later adjective, may safely be understood as evidence of the adjectival utility of the sense expressed by the interjection.

Searches of other online sources did not reveal attestations earlier than those given by the OED.


About the currency of the term in spoken English, little pertinent external evidence is available to me. A case-insensitive search of the NOW Corpus of semi-informal English in online broadcast and print media reveals a fair number of uses of the adjective, 'aw-shucks': 24 in 2016, 23 in 2015, 23 in 2014, and so on. A case-insensitive search in the same corpus for 'aw shucks' reveals other uses in that form as an adjective as well as interjectional uses.

My own experience with spoken English also suggests that the term enjoys steady and widespread, although not overwhelmingly frequent, use. This is to be expected of a term that has no connection with profane, blasphemous, taboo or otherwise objectionable terms, and yet expresses borderline expletive indifference or mild contempt.


Locally (only at EL&U, so far as I can determine from available evidence), the quaint notion that 'shucks' (interjection) originated as a euphemism for 'shit' (interjection) seems to have some inexplicable traction. This notion is obviously anachronistic.

The earliest attested use of 'shucks' as an interjection was in 1847 (OED Online). The earliest attested use of 'shit' as an interjection was in 1865 (op. cit.). Therefore, suggesting that 'shucks' originated as a euphemism for 'shit' ignores the significantly earlier attestation of 'shucks'.

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    A comprehensive and thorough commentary of the meaning, usage and origin of the word in question. It's helpful. I really appreciate your input. – Yoichi Oishi Sep 18 '16 at 8:00
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    @JEL Although this etymology is useful, I think that tchrist's actually right about this being a euphemism. The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia suggests a similar etymology as the O.E.D., but it marks the word shucks as vulgar, and implies a connection to the vulgar phrase "not worth shucks". That sounds innocuous enough today, but given that we have both "Aw sh!t" and "Not worth sh!t", I recommend editing the last paragraph because it's likely that this is connected with an objectionable word. – Tonepoet Sep 18 '16 at 14:00

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