On his final epic rant for the “Daily Show,” Jon Stewart dropped the truth bomb that bullshit is everywhere. There are four basic kinds of BS, Stewart declared. There’s 1) everyday BS, 2) institutional BS, 3) mountains of BS, and 4) the BS of “infinite possibilities.” In other words, the kind of bullshit that’s also called “procrastinating.”
Thanks to Mark Peters’ new book, “Bullshit: A Lexicon,” we can now rehearse BS variation no. 4 while exploring the fuller taxonomy of bullshit in all of its crapspackle glory. The writer of several columns, including the “Best Joke Ever” for “McSweeney’s,” Peters is an accidental aficionado of claptrap and hokum. Over the past decade, as a sidebar to other projects, he ended up collecting more than 200 different words and phrases that mean “bullshit.” The result is the perfect book to read in the loo, and I mean that as a compliment.
For the most part, these words are euphemisms, not obscenities, nestling comfortably in the social sphere where it’s better to call someone out for spewing "donkey dust" than to insult their intelligence by using boring four-letter words. Conspicuously absent from his lexicon are words from the military playbook, though grunt slang is rich with glorious filth. “Cheesedicking.” “Dicked up.” “Goat roping.” These highly inappropriate words to use at dinner parties are variations on the “cock” words he also avoids, such as “cock and bull,” and “cocked up.” In other words, Peters has written a sort of field guide to help novice nitshitters navigate their way around conversational meadow muffins, and the best way to do this is by reeling off swell words that strike contemporary ears as kind of charming. Such as “Sweet Fanny Adams,” a 1920s phrase meaning “bullshit.” Peters explains that it’s the “the polite form of a vulgar phrase.” The precise nature of which I will leave to your imagination.
The book organizes “bullshit” into categories ranging from “scams” to “gibberish,” with many shades in between. Each word comes with a brief history of how it came to be known as a variation of BS. Recently, I chatted with Peters to dig into the mysteries of bullshit. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
How did bullshit come to mean bullshit? Because there is “bull” (as in load of bull) and there is “shit,” but what made bullshit more popular than, say, “horsefeathers” or “bird turds”?
I don’t know if this is an answer but I have a dog, and I live in a dog-heavy area. There is a lot of dog shit in my neighborhood. So if you say, “dogshit!” most people will assume that you’re referring to the literal stuff on the ground. Whereas very few of us living in cities today will see or step in actual bullshit. So when you say, “bullshit!” everyone knows that you’re not talking about an actual pile of turds. That doesn’t apply to everyone, of course. In the course of researching this book, when I googled “horse dumplings” or “horse donuts”—these being variations of “bullshit”—I was surprised to find how many times their use was literal. In many places, it would seem, horse shit is still an actual problem.
For those of us who live with livestock, “bullshit” never refers to bull shit, which is instead referred to in polite company as “cow patties.”
There’s “bullshine,” and “bullsugar,” too, with the euphemistic version being very close to the original version, but nicer. Family friendly. I write a column about euphemisms for “Visual Thesaurus,” and ironically—or fittingly, I suppose—I couldn’t mention the name of my book… so I had to use a euphemism.
Given the free flow of four-letter words on the Internet and cable TV, how bad is it to say “shit,” really?
It feels, say, 15 percent more naughty than “crap.” It’s only a little bit bad. But saying “bullcrap!” doesn’t have the same effect as “bullshit!” at all. A little bit of taboo is all it takes to get the right amount of emphasis.
Do you have any favorites in this book?
I like “four flusher.” In a card game, it’s a variation of “you’re bluffing, you trash talkin’ braggart!” It’s a way of declaring that your opponent has a hand one short of a flush and therefore the cards he’s holding are worthless. I swear it has absolutely nothing do with flushing the toilet after a load of crap has been dumped, though, well, the image works a little too well.
I also like flubdub. It’s has a folksy, fun sound and is also a word for an apple dumpling.
It’s interesting that the fun ones hide the insult inside nursery-rhyme imagery. Very Lewis Carroll, Jabberwocky-style bullshit.
For example, back in 2009, PETA tried to re-brand fish as “sea kittens” in an attempt to get people to stop eating fish. So that was a pretty blatant attempt at “cute” renaming. As you can imagine, a lot of people called bullshit on that one. The campaign didn’t seem to go anywhere.
You can’t really cross the taxonomic line. There’s fish, and there’s mammals. But mostly, you can’t rename fish after a house pet known to love tuna and hate water. A cat of any kind would make a terrible, terrible fish. So of course PETA got serious blowback. As the young people say: “What is this fuckery?”
Fuckery! That’s one I missed.
“Fuckery” seems quite popular now in Internet land. Which makes sense when you consider that “fuck” is the all-purpose American swear word. In Germany, it's “scheiβe.” In France, it's “merde.” Swearing works best if the word is one syllable, forceful, expectorated. “Bullshit” almost seems sophisticated by comparison.
It shows that BS clings to its taboo-ness by a thread. It’s “crap” with a bit more strength. “That’s BULLSHIT!” carries more passion. But it’s still not exactly offensive. Not anymore. It’s not just the word, it’s also in the delivery and the attitude.
That makes me think of Eddie Murphy’s “banana in the tailpipe” line reading in “Beverly Hills Cop.” A film that uses the word “bullshit” constantly, because Murphy uses it to call out authority figures while mocking social pretenses.
One of the things that struck me in the process of writing this was how much BS was in the eye of the beholder. And yes, BS is everywhere. We talk about it, produce it, and say, “That’s bullshit!” Or in the case of Joe Biden, “That's a bunch of malarkey!” [In a 2012 vice-presidential debate, Paul Ryan’s critique of the Obama administration’s response to Benghazi prompted Biden to call him out, spawning the hashtag #malarkey, not to mention endless gifs.] It’s a shame that Biden isn’t running for president, because we won’t be hearing much more of that word. Politicians are doing their job in creating BS, but they’re not calling each other out for it often enough. Every politician should have this book so they would have better ammunition.
Which brings us back to the many euphemisms for bullshit you describe in this book. The very existence of so many variations reflects changing ideas regarding what can be said in polite society, how we police public discourse and, to a certain degree, enforce gendered patterns of speech—“ladies don’t swear,” that sort of thing. Meaning that euphemisms for bullshit are basically, well, BS. Because they avoid being accountable for shitty realities in order to maintain the status quo.
George Carlin denounced euphemisms in the service of comedy. [Carlin’s career was essentially dedicated to calling out “humanity’s bullshit,” including a famous routine, “Everything is bullshit.” (“Parents are full of shit, teachers are full of shit, clergymen are full of shit, and law enforcement people are full of shit.”) Jon Stewart’s final bit pays homage to Carlin.] You can see them another way: euphemisms are the circles drawn around outrages in order to stop fanning the flames. They’re certainly creative, and highly revealing regarding the boundaries of social permissiveness. Other terms are just pure fun. For example, I wish I could call someone a wanker. If you do that in the U.S., you become one.
Bullshit: here to stay?
No matter what your political or religious beliefs, everybody has had it up to here with BS. One of its powers is that it covers so much.