The Best Shit Has to Offer

Every language is enlivened by its array of idioms.  Americans seem to be particularly fond of the word “shit”, perhaps because these idioms take advantage of the tension between the taboo of a body effluent and the titillating guilty pleasure of potty humor.  Unlike many idioms that are based on local history, religion, geography or contemporary culture, shit idioms should be self-explanatory and immediately understandable across languages. Culled from a list of hundreds, the following idioms represent the best that shit has to offer.

1.  When the Shit Hits the Fan

This idiom is chosen for its graphic visual describing something that goes terribly, terribly wrong.  I stand in grateful awe to the Shakespeare-caliber wit who first penned this stunner, his name now sadly lost to history.   I recall a humid childhood day sitting with a group of friends next to a fan, when my brother decided to test out the aerodynamic effects of a body fluid applied to moving blades. He spat into the fan.  The drifting mist brought the idiom into horrific focus.  The related idiom “shit storm” is feeble in comparison.

2.  Shit-eating Grin

It is difficult to dwell on the explicit meaning of this idiom and it does not display the same level of creativity as No. 1 above.  However, the idiom demonstrates the versatility of shit, simultaneously engaging multiple senses – visual, tactile/mouth-feel, smell, and yes, yuck, even taste.  It also captures the conceptual naughtiness of shit, of someone enjoying a guilty pleasure.  Okay, I would agree that this idiom may be difficult to translate to other languages and that it might reflect poorly on Americans.  An alternative for a more genteel audience might be “like a cat who ate a canary.”

3.  Don’t Shit Where You Live

I love the scientific flavor of this idiom, neatly describing the evolutionary imperative for a social animal living in a confined space.  It applies not only to humans but foxes, rabbits, basically anyone lives in a den.  This coziness requires a modicum of personal space, free from the health hazard of feces.  The evolution of voluntary sphincters was a breakthrough event for all of us living in close quarters.

4.  Holy Shit

This idiom does not present a strong visual but is chosen for its linkage between the blasphemy of old and current expletives.  As the power of the church waned, words such as God, Damn, Hell and their religious ilk were no longer taboo.  New words were needed and the taboo moved from expletives to culturally-defined obscenities describing sex, anatomy and the curious category of “effluvia,” of which shit is a member.  Combining “holy” and “shit” embraces the entire spectrum of expletives across centuries of psycholinguistic evolution.

5.  Shit Happens

This idiom showcases shit as a philosophical statement about the vagaries of fate and coincidence.  Optimists may favor such saccharine phrases as “good things happen to good people,” but “shit happens” is simple, direct, real.

Honorable Mention:

Visual (the most robust and creative category):

Up shit creek without a paddle, ten pounds of shit in a five-pound bag, rare as rocking horse shit, push shit uphill with a pity stick (This latter idiom might be difficult to translate to other languages, but I have personally witnessed this act, and probably also performed it myself.  I can confirm it is not a pretty sight.)


Shit on a shingle, no shit Sherlock, don’t know shit from Shinola (a very unfortunate idiom for the Shinola company that makes black shoe polish)

Animal category, which might reflect agrarian roots:

Dog shit, horse shit, bull shit chicken shit, bat shit, and the outlier ape shit.

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