When the Spit Hits the Spam

My interest in idioms was prompted by an offhand comment by my cousin Susie who remarked that she had enjoyed a slim volume called “Hog on Ice,” which provided derivations for common American idioms.  I then began to notice that our conversation is peppered with colorful idioms that must bedevil anyone aspiring to be bilingual – between a rock and a hard place, raining cats and dogs, steal your thunder, etc.  Every summer I take a two mile brainstorming walk along PineLake in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and it was here that I came up with the idea of turning idioms and their derivations into a board game.  The centerpiece involved contestants selecting the correct derivation of an idiom from four different possibilities – one correct answer and 3 distractors that I made up, similar to the vocab section on the SATs that we all despised. 

The first step in such a project, or really almost any new project, is to enthusiastically buy the correct equipment and I quickly discovered that that “Hog on Ice” was only one of many reference books on idioms, cliché, slang and proverbs.  Amazon listed general reference books and then specialized reference books, such as idioms of the sailor (miss the boat), cop (perp walk) and army (SNAFU, FUBB, FUBAR, FUBIJAR, where the FU stands for different variants of F*** up.)  I eagerly ordered a very impressive three volume American Heritage dictionary of American slang, but was disappointed when only two volumes arrived; I was missing the letters P-Z.  Multiple phone calls later I was told that American Heritage had decided NOT to publish the last volume of the dictionary; they had run out of money or interest or both.  This was quite possibly the dumbest thing I had every heard of.  There is a long list of idioms describing stupidity.  I propose that we add “His alphabet is missing a few letters” to this list.

I also learned that the most common origins of idioms were either the Bible (handwriting on the wall) or Shakespeare (pound of flesh [from Merchant of Venice]).  In fact, someone reading Hamlet without historical context might comment that the play would be better if it wasn’t so riddled with clichés.  I then amassed more reference books on Biblical phrases and summaries of Shakespeare in order to create convincing distractors for my game, which was christened Idiom’s Delight.  While we had many hilarious parties playing the game.  I really did not know how to take this project to the next level, but nonetheless I am pleased to be left with an entire shelf devoted to idiom reference books.

When I last heard the familiar phrase, “When the Shit Hits the Fan,” it struck me that this might be the perfect idiom – exceedingly clever, slightly naughty in a fun potty humor sort of way, perfectly visual and absolutely capturing a situation that has gone terribly wrong.  I searched my reference books, but could not find a single source of origin, though one suggested that in polite company the word “pudding” could be substituted for shit without losing any of its visual wallop.  Coincidentally, as I was surfing through the vast wasteland of cable TV I came across a M*A*S*H episode where someone provided another sanitized version – “when the spit hits the spam,”  though perhaps this refers to the disastrous moment when someone first tastes spam.  I could only imagine the first clever person uttering “when the shit hits the fan”, immediately followed by its lightning spread throughout the country and then the ultimate validation – inclusion in a reference book. 

I certainly thought this expression could not be peculiar to English.  Following its rapid diffusion though the United States, it must have leapt the big pond with immediate translation into German, French and Italian, with further diffusion to Middle East, Asia and South East Asia.  It must be world wide.  One day I was taking a cab to the airport and I overheard the driver rapidly talking in what sounded like a middle eastern language.  I thought, “Cab rides, what a perfect venue for a little field research.”  The man told me that he was from Ethiopia and was speaking Aramic.  So I asked him, “How would you say ‘when the shit hits the fan’ in Aramic – what expressions do you have for when everything goes wrong?”  I tried to write down his phrase phonetically, but when I asked him to translate it back into English, I realized that he had simply translated it verbatim and had no idea what I was talking about.  I took a few steps back and realized that it was very difficult to define the concept of an idiom; the best that I could come up with was a phrase that is not used literally.  I tried to come up with other examples of idioms and ended up running through the various idioms for stupidity – i.e. not the sharpest tool, not playing with a full deck, and finally got recognition with “lights on, nobody’s home.”  The cab driver nodded appreciatively and said, “Yes I have a brother in law like that.”  Although I knew that I needed to refine my research methods if my time was limited to a cab ride, I got the sense that perhaps English was particularly idiom rich.  After all, Shakespeare bats clean up on our team.    

My next stop was my Polish friend Iga and her son Phillip, who said that “when the shit hits the fan” has absolutely no meaning in Polish, and in fact, instead of being cute and funny, it was disgusting and “Why would any one ever say this vulgar thing in someone’s home?”  When asked for a Polish expression for something that goes terribly wrong, Iga came up with:

 Jak piorun rombnie in szczypiorek!

This translates to, “when the thunder hits the chives.”  Now it was my turn to look thunderstruck at the inanity of this expression.  Iga explained that chives normally grow resolutely straight upward and would become entirely discombobulated when hit (?) by thunder.  In fact, since the chances are minimal that thunder would ever hit chives, this expression implies a very unusual occurrence (i.e. once in a blue moon).  I explained that “when the shit hits the fan,” does not necessarily imply an unusual or unexpected occurrence, or a violent situation, but actually describes a situation that could be anticipated, a worst case scenario that once started, gathered a life of its own.   Now Brits might like to say, “everything went down the crapper,” but to me that means something slightly different.  My expression implies that multiple things are interacting in a synergistic and disastrous way, while to me the British expression could describe a solo act that comes to a very quiet and natural end (my tennis game has gone down the crapper).  It also fails because it misses the wonderful visual of a fan wildly flinging mushy material.

As I was finishing my conversation with Iga and checking the correct Polish spelling, she sheepishly mentioned that while Poles finds the word shit vulgar, they freely use the word f*** (which I cannot even bring myself to type) all the time without embarrassment.   I am sure that many bright linguists have studied how different languages swear and use idioms in polite company or in locker rooms, but I wondered if in general cultures could be broadly subdivided into f***ers or sh***ers, and if so Americans might be the latter.  Just consider the following list of idioms that incorporate the word, either as a noun, adjective, verb or adverb, with connotations that are negative, neutral or even positive (really know your shit).  In particular, the number of animals is impressive, including representatives from the ungulate, simian, avian and chiroptera families.       

  • Bull shit
  • Horse shit
  • Chicken shit
  • Ape shit
  • Bat shit
  • Make like horse shit and hit the road
  • Happier than a pig in shit
  • Not give a shit
  • Up shit creek without a paddle
  • Get your shit together
  • Shit a brick
  • Get shit-canned
  • Get the shit kicked out of
  • Shit list
  • Shit on a shingle
  • Have the shits
  • Lucky shit
  • Know your shit
  • Holy shit
  • No shit Sherlock
  • Shit out of luck
  • Shit or get off of the pot
  • Shoot the shit
  • Tough shit
  • Scared shitless
  • Shit faced
  • Shit kickers
  • Dipshit
  • Hot shit
  • A shit load
  • Shit in a bag and punch it (a frustrating situation)
  • Shithead
  • Piece of shit
  • Be full of shit
  • Don’t know shit from shinola
  • Shit for brains
  • That’s some heavy shit, man
The missing words in the following poem are anagrams (i.e. share the same letters like post, stop, spot) and the number of asterisks indicates the number of letters.  One of the missing words will rhyme with the previous or following line.  Your job is to solve for the missing words based on the above rules and the context of the poem.  Scroll down for answers. 

I tip my hat to the unknown linguist with the agile wit,

Who thought expressions for disasters were simply inadequate.

He thought, “I want to invent something clever and maybe a little naughty,

Perhaps an expression that includes some humor from the potty.”

Inspiration struck as he walked his dog on a hot and muggy day,

 When the” **** **** **** the fan” perfectly captured the visual he sought to convey. 








this, shit, hits

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