Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Bullshit, Part #1


In an email discussion with some friends last night about the numerous emails that use spurious facts to support demonisation of minorities, refugees and people receiving social security benefits, I mentioned that if something looked like bullshit, it usually is.

That started me wondering: how did bovine excrement come to denote nonsense and untruth?

Surprisingly, even T S Eliot gets credit as do the ANZACs . . .

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According to Wkikpedia:

"Bull", meaning nonsense, dates from the 17th century, while the term "bullshit" has been used as early as 1915 in American slang, and came into popular usage only during World War 11. The word "bull" itself may have derived from the Old French boul meaning "fraud, deceit" (Oxford English Dictionary). The term "horseshit" is a near synonym. Worthy of note is the South African English equivalent "bull dust". Few corresponding terms exist in other languages, with the significant exception of German Bockmist, literally "billy-goat shit".

The earliest attestation mentioned by the Concise Oxford English Dictionary is in fact T S Eliot, who between 1910 and 1916 wrote an early poem to which he gave the title "The Triumph of Bullshit", written in the form of a ballade. The word bullshit does not appear in the text of the poem. Eliot did not publish this poem during his lifetime. 

As to earlier etymology the OED cites bull with the meaning "trivial, insincere, untruthful talk or writing, nonsense". It describes this usage as being of unknown origin, but notes the following: "OF boul, boule, bole fraud, deceit, trickery; mod cel: bull ‘nonsense’; also ME bull BUL ‘falsehood’, and BULL verb, to befool, mock, cheat." 

Although as the above makes clear there is no confirmed etymological connection, it might be noted that these older meanings are synonymous with the modern expression "bull" otherwise generally considered, and intentionally used as, a contraction of "bullshit".

Another theory, according to the lexicographer Eric Partridge, is that the term was popularised by the Australian and New Zealand troops from about 1916 arriving at the front during World War I. They were astonished at the British commanding officers' emphasis on bull. Bull was the term for attention to appearances - spit and polish, making everything just so, even when it was a hindrance to waging war. The Diggers ridiculed the British by calling it not bull but bullshit.

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