Warning: The following item contains unpleasant subject matter, scatological references and toilet humour. Parental or teenage supervision is recommended.
Recently esteemed philosopher and occasional budgie smuggler model, Anthony John Abbott, made news for commenting on the death of an Australian soldier in Afghanistan that “shit happens”. In this context the word “shit” means unpleasant events and circumstances, the expression “shit happens” meaning that unpleasant events and situations are a feature of life and existence, that bad things happen for no particular reason. There have been many similar views expressed by other philosophers through the ages. Even the phrases “cest la vie” or Ned Kelly’s “Such is life” have similar meanings. Nonetheless none give the force and laconic brevity of the two word expression “Shit happens”.
Mr Abbott was originally criticised for being insensitive, but focus then shifted to the journalist for perhaps setting him up in questioning him on it, and for Mr Abbott’s stunned, head-rocking response to the questioning. It is interesting to note that some television stations showed the conversation on screen with asterisks as “s**t happens”, others showed the words in full. So far as I am aware, no one objected to the particular word used.
The suggestion that the expression was coined by Forrest Gump is incorrect. Those who recall the 1994 movie of that name will also remember the scene where a bumper sticker salesman approaches Forrest for a new slogan during Forrest’s running phase. He points out that Forrest nearly stepped in dog faeces, to which Forrest replies “It happens.” The salesman asks “What, shit?” and Forrest answers “Sometimes”. This provides the inspiration for the creation of the “Shit Happens bumper sticker by the salesman.
The actual etymology of the expression “Shit Happens” remains unknown. The earliest recorded use is in a University of North Carolina listing of slang in 1983.
In 1990 one James Daniel Cunningham was convicted by a Georgia jury of having contravened a statute that read:
"No person owning, operating, or using a motor vehicle in this state shall knowingly affix or attach to any part of such motor vehicle any sticker, decal, emblem, or other device containing profane or lewd words describing sexual acts, excretory functions, or parts of the human body."
He was fined $100. His offence had been to display a bumper sticker that read “Shit Happens”.
Mr Cunningham appealed the conviction to the Georgia Supreme Court on the basis that the law was unconstitutional. The court agreed with Mr Cunningham, stating that
“The peace of society is not endangered by the profane or lewd word which is not directed at a particular audience.” In response to the crown submission that the statute was necessary to shield minors from harmful speech, the court said that “The audience of observers of bumper stickers is not made up primarily of minors or other persons of delicate sensibilities.”
Mr Goodman did not, however, walk out of court unscathed. Notwithstanding its ruling that the statute was unconstitutional and that it violated the right of free speech, the court quoted with approval Benjamin Franklin’s comment: "Everything one has a right to do is not best to be done.”
The court further stated:
"Although the state may not impose criminal sanctions under OCGA § 40-1-4, this does not mean the exhibitor of such a bumper sticker stands blameless among his fellows. The exhibition of poor taste and demonstration of lack of concern for the sensibilities of others cast the offender in a position of societal disrespect. This position is well deserved."
Funnily enough, despite the S word being regarded as a swear word and not for use in polite company, it is a very useful word with a myriad of meanings:
• Belongings, stuff: Move your shit off my bed.
• Wits, composure: Get your shit together.
• Fear: I was shitting bricks.
• Trouble: He’s in deep shit.
• No sympathy: Tough shit.
• Surprise: Shit!
• Fear: Shit!
• Frustration: Shit!
• Substandard item: It’s a piece of shit.
• Scorn: Eat shit.
• Incredulity: No shit?
• Stating the obvious: No shit, Sherlock!
• Denigration for pompousness, exaggeration: You’re full of shit.
• Deception: Are you shitting me?
Then there are the phrases that incorporate the word, the combined words, such as shithead, and animal combined words:
• Bullshit: exaggeration, untrue.
• Chickenshit: being afraid.
• Apeshit: go crazy.
• Horseshit: as for bullshit.
• Batshit: as for apeshit.
Which leads me into a final comment, the possible origin of the expression “”the shit hit the fan”, an image that one does not want to retain in the mind for any lengthy period. According to etymologist Hugh Rawson:
The expression is related to, and may well derive from, an old joke. A man in a crowded bar needed to defecate but couldn't find a bathroom, so he went upstairs and used a hole in the floor. Returning, he found everyone had gone except the bartender, who was cowering behind the bar. When the man asked what had happened, the bartender replied, 'Where were you when the shit hit the fan?'