Daily Archives: June 29, 2010


I was having a tutoring session with my young student Marcus Brattle on the patio at Café Kopi Luwak when I looked up to see a lean figure with a five-o’clock shadow and a portable dog coming towards us.

Ross Ewage, noted vulgarian.

“Shit,” I said. Marcus looked up.

Ross drew abreast. “Did I hear you talking about my dog?”

“Your dog?” Marcus asked. “I believe he said, ‘Shit.'”

“That’s my dog,” said Ross, holding the small creature before him. “Shit Sue. She’s a nice little shit, Sue.”

“If we were to pronounce the breed name shih-tzu more like the Mandarin original,” I observed, “that pun wouldn’t be available.”

“Well, we don’t, and it is,” Ross said, setting the dog on the pavement. “So what’re you doing here? Just shootin’ the shit?”

I tried to steer away from the coprolalia. “We were discussing Star Trek,” I said.

“Oh, shit, that’s good shit, that is,” Ross said. “The original series especially. That shit is the shit. I mean, it’s the real shit.”

“No it’s not!” Marcus said. “It’s not the shit! It’s just shit. The later shit is much better shit.” Marcus was always quick to warm to the improper.

“Ah, you’re fulla shit.” Ross waved his hand.

“But the premises are such wild bullshit,” Marcus said.

“That’s science fiction,” I observed. “It relies on a healthy helping of what Orson Scott Card calls pseudo-scientific garbage.”

“Look,” Ross said, “it’s the same shit everywhere: you drop the crew on some shit planet, they get knee-deep in shit dealing with some dumb shit, and then by shit-ass luck they get out. But in the course of that, they come up with some really interesting shit. It’s not meant to be real life.”

“No shit, Sherlock,” Marcus said.

“But the original Star Trek did it first. They own that shit.”

“You know,” I said to Marcus, “if your mother heard this conversation, we’d be up shit creek.”

“Ha! She’d shit a brick,” he laughed. “The shit would hit the fan. Ah, tough shit.” He swigged his coffee.

“Well, then why are you meeting at a place named ‘cat shit coffee’?” Ross asked.

Score one point for Ross.

Marcus looked up at the restaurant sign. “What?”

“Kopi luwak,” I said. “That’s coffee that’s been eaten by civets – often called civet cats, though they’re not really cats – and then shat out. The beans are harvested from the excrement, cleaned up, roasted, and served. It’s the most expensive coffee in the world.”

“That’s some crazy shit,” Marcus said. “It must be tough to gather that shit.”

“They have to catch it first,” said Ross, but he said “catch it” more like “cat shit.”

“I think,” declared Marcus, “this shit is a very versatile word. And it certainly has a good sound to it.”

“Yeah, it’s like sliding into home plate,” said Ross. “You can really hiss it – you can say it with clenched teeth. And it slides to a nice stop.”

“It’s just like the doors on the Enterprise,” Marcus said. “You hear when they open and close: shit…shit.”

“Yes,” I added, warming to the topic a bit more, “and while it has that hushing ‘sh’ it also carries more force than the other popular vulgarity that starts with a voiceless fricative and ends with a stop. That one has the teeth biting the lip, which restrains the air more and is less loud, more a gesture of holding something back; it then really lets the dam burst –”

Damn is not the word –” Ross said, but I cut him off and continued.

“It lets the dam burst with a more open vowel, and then it ends at the back. Shit maintains high pressure by staying tight up at the tip of the tongue.”

“Especially if you’re drinking kopi luwak,” Marcus observed. “I declare. It really gets around for an acronym.”

Ross and I turned and looked with the same expression: bullshit meter needle tipping into the red. “Acronym?” I said.

“Don’t you know that?” Marcus said. “From ship high in transit?”

“That’s bullshit,” I said.

“That’s not just bullshit, that’s horseshit,” Ross averred. “Listen, anyone who thinks vulgarities come from acronyms doesn’t know Jack shit about etymology. People don’t make vulgarities from acronyms; they make acronyms to hide vulgarities. SNAFU. SOL. WTF. Vulgarities are good old Germanic words. As they say, Anglo-Saxon four-letter words.”

Shit comes from an Old English root, the verb scitan,” I said, pronouncing it like “she tan.” “It’s cognate with, for instance, German Scheiss. It was a verb first, then a noun from that. Another form, less common, is shite. Which has been used occasionally in other terms of abuse, such as nimshite, which means ‘shit taker’.”

“You’re shitting me,” Marcus said.

“That’s no shit,” Ross said.

Marcus reached for his coffee but bumped the table, which tilted and spilled the beverages. “Aw, shit. What a piece of shit,” he said, smacking the table.

“I think that’s my cue to exit,” said Ross. As he turned to walk away, he discovered with his shoe that his dog had been busy. He lifted his foot. “Shit,” he observed.

Marcus smirked. “Shit happens.”

Thanks to Alison Kooistra for suggesting I taste shit.


Spuzhka kuprista. Grahaaalamana! Mulikusu manaritis tata. I brustu manisichi. Gremisoto lanis ticha. Skuurrman nana tata lili olo! Glossolalia!

Don’t recognize that language? Oh, come now. Analyze it morphologically. Look for structures that bespeak a syntax.

Look, people do this all the time! In states of ecstasy! Inspired by divine afflatus! Have you not heard of speaking in tongues?

No, I don’t mean the album by the Talking Heads.

See, on the original day of Pentecost, the apostles had tongues of fire land on them, and they spoke in foreign languages and were understood by those who spoke those languages. And now there is a tradition in some churches of speaking in tongues: people, moved by the spirit, reel off declarations just like the first paragraph above.

Ask them what it means. Ask anyone what it means. Find someone who understands it. Try not to be met with a glassy lolling gaze.

There is, certainly, one word up there that is analyzable: glossolalia. Fits right in, doesn’t it? But gloss is, like its alternate glott, from the Greek for “tongue”, and lalia is from a Greek word for “speaking” – or “babbling”: lalalalalala (note the difference in ancient Greek between baby babble, lalala, and foreign speech, barbarbar – as in barbarian). So it means “speaking in tongues” – or “babbling with your tongue”. Hence the American Heritage Dictionary definition, “Fabricated and nonmeaningful speech, especially such speech associated with a trance state or certain schizophrenic syndromes.”

One could probably extend it to include such things as songs that use made-up language-like syllables, such as several used in Cirque du Soleil shows; one could even include fake language that sounds like a real, identifiable language, such as Adriano Celentano’s “Prisencolinensinainciusol.”.

I’ll tell you this: glossolalia is a great word for it. It starts with that oral and shiny /gl/, and indeed the gloss here fits the meretricious fulgurence of its referent – it looks impressive, but at the heart of it is a loss. The olalia trips off the tip of the tongue, flapping it like the lingual fillip of a popular trollop (and perhaps suggesting that glossolalists have the doolally tap). There’s the hiss of the /s/ and then the liquid /l/s again, babbling like a brook, so lightly and insouciantly, ready to be sung or blathered abroad. All it really lacks is a trilled /r/.

But what is the value of it? I wouldn’t be the only person to call “speaking in tongues” into question. “Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue [ah, intelligible, it has such a lovely sound to go with glossolalia, but the former has something the latter lacks], how will anyone know what you are saying? …Undoubtedly there are all sorts of languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning.” That (except for my bracketed comment) is from I Corinthians 14:9–10, by the apostle Paul. So, heck, if even he wasn’t for it, what is the value of it?

I’ll tell you what the value of it is for me. If I’m at home, by myself, and something frustrates me, rather than saying vile things, I simply spout glossolalia. So much nicer than coprolalia. Great phatic way of blowing off steam. Or blowing smoke, as the case may be.