Word Study

Shit Show, a Word Study

Shit show. According to Dictionary.com, “a shitshow is a description of an event or situation that takes an unexpected turn and is thrown into chaos. It’s another word for spectacle or a complete mess.” It’s a word that I’ve used in the past, but not one that I go to very often.

However, in the past few weeks, the frequency with which I use this word has increased nearly tenfold for reasons I’d rather not get into at the moment, but I’m sure you can infer. So, that got me thinking, “Where did this term actually come from?”

First thing’s first. When conducting an analysis of words, we must break down the word into its smaller parts to fully understand it. With the term shit show, we must first look at the word shit and then the word show.

The first known usage of the word shit is in 1526, and it is said to have origins in both Old English (scite and scitan) and Scandinavian languages well before its 1526 official debut. In every case though, this word has meant the same thing: defecation. Interestingly, the verb form of the word shit was actually used earlier in the 14th century and had its origins from the Old High German word, scizan, meaning “to defecate.”

Okay, so now that we understand that shit means shit no matter which country or period in which it originated, let’s move on to the word show.

Like shit and so many other glorious words in our crazy English language, the term show also has its origins in the Germanic languages. The term comes from the Old English word sceawian and the Old High German scouwon, both meaning “to look at.” The popularized spelling of these terms changed in the 18th century to shew, and its meaning evolved into “make known” as well. Obviously, shew looks remarkably similar to the modern English show. The noun version of this word can trace its origin to circa 1300, where the attributed meaning is “act of exhibiting to view,” but the definition I’m most concerned with is the 1560s version of the word meaning, “display or spectacle.”

Based on the two words individually, it seems obvious that the two words would be put together to describe a chaotic event, but when was this wonderful term actually coined in its modern form?

According to Katherine Connor Martin, head of U.S. dictionaries at Oxford University Press, quoted in a Slate article, ‘the earliest evidence we are aware of is from 1976, in an English translation of comments made by a member of the Red Army Faction.’ After some quick Googling and the high probability of being placed on some sort of government watchlist because of said Googling, I discovered that the Red Army Faction was a radical anti-government group in West Germany from 1968 to 1998 that engaged in terrorist activities in order to evoke a strong response from a government they believed to be a fascist off-shoot of the Nazi Party. They did a bunch of terrorist things (hijacking planes, kidnapping politicians, assassinating people, etc.) until the fall of East Germany and the Berlin Wall, at which point, it was discovered that the RAF were getting its funding and orders from pro-communist regimes and sympathizers. Many of the members were tried and convicted of their crimes and the group officially disbanded in 1998.

During their reign of terror, however, many members were captured. One woman, Monika Berberich, is credited with the first documented use of the term shit show. Monika was captured and detained whilst on trial for 43 months, and then was eventually sentenced to 12 years in prison for assisting in the robbing of several banks. According to Monika, the 43-month trial violated her right to a speedy trial, which led her to file a complaint with the European Commission of Human Rights. Ultimately, her complaint was denied because she was found to have contributed to the large delay in her trial. After one of her failures to attend trial, she insulted the judge, calling him a “swine” and referring to the trial itself as a “shit show.”

So, there it is. We have the Germans to thank for giving us beer, cars that cheat on emissions tests, and of course, some of the most wonderfully diverse words in the English language. So, the next time you use the term shit show, remember that it was coined by a crazy terrorist in an angry tirade after not getting her way. Which, if you think about it, is the perfect setting for the use of a word describing a complete mess.


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