Saturday, November 17, 2012

Why they removed the "shit" from my shit article

Hey all! I just found out I got an article published in the Society for Applied Anthropology Newsletter on sanitation: "The Stinky Revolution: how a horrible stench changed the course of urbanization." It draws on one of my favorite historical events that I also talk about in this blog post and this one--the Great Stink in London in 1857 that served as the catalyst for London's sanitation system.

Unfortunately, the editors decided to change all my uses of "shit" to "feces"--I find this interesting. It was a lengthy back and forth with the student editor about it, and I defended (quite strongly) using "shit." "Shit" is used in social science contexts because, quite frankly, there aren't very many good synonyms for it. Rose George in her book The Big Necessity is the one who converted me to using "shit" instead of the easier, more gentle synonyms.

Let's go over them, shall we?

Feces: this is a medical, clinical term, that doesn't really speak to lived realities of shit. (When you have a river of it, you don't think of it as feces--you think of shit.)

Dookie, caca, poop, number 2: Childish. We're uncomfortable with the act, so we render call it by childish things (because children are allowed to defecate; adults can't talk about it) or use a euphemism.

Waste: Ambiguous. Shit is waste, and so is poor spending by the government.

This is why I use "shit" in non-medical contexts. It's not that I particularly enjoy swearing or shocking people (although whether the word itself should be shocking is up for debate). It's because it's the best alternative in most situations.

Online Etymology dictionary writes of its origins:

O.E. scitan, from P.Gmc. *skit-, from PIE *skheid- "split, divide, separate." Related to shed (v.) on the notion of "separation" from the body (cf. L. excrementum, from excernere "to separate"). It is thus a cousin to science and conscience. Despite what you read in an e-mail, "shit" is not an acronym. The notion that it is a recent word may be because the word was taboo from c.1600 and rarely appeared in print (neither Shakespeare nor the KJV has it), and even in "vulgar" publications of the late 18c. it is disguised by dashes. It drew the wrath of censors as late as 1922 ("Ulysses" and "The Enormous Room"), scandalized magazine subscribers in 1957 (a Hemingway story in "Atlantic Monthly") and was omitted from some dictionaries as recently as 1970 ("Webster's New World"). Extensive slang usage; verb meaning "to lie, to tease" is from 1934; that of "to disrespect" is from 1903. Shat is a humorous past tense form, not etymological, first recorded 18c. Shite, now a jocular or slightly euphemistic variant, formerly a dialectal variant, reflects the vowel in the Old English verb (cf. Ger. scheissen).

It's origin--that of being from the Latin for to separate--is benign. So I'm a bit frustrated that they decided not to stick with "shit"--especially considering this newsletter is for anthropologists, who really shouldn't be shocked anymore--but I do understand it. Unfortunately, most of English's curse words relate to either religion or the body (or bodily acts).

"Shit," though, because it carries so much weight rhetorically, is uncomfortable to use in many contexts. I'm reserved about using it in my daily life--I don't use it when generally discussing my research to most people (such as my boyfriend's mother) in a casual context and in the twenty minutes of an undergrad lecture I did on disease ecology where I spoke about diarrhea, I stuck with "feces" the whole time. (People were already uncomfortable talking about the topic.)

So you can check out my sanitized article in the newsletter above. Hopefully, when I write my dissertation, I get to choose the synonym I use.

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