I decided to start a series based on swear words answering two questions that has haunted me throughout life:
- how did these swear words become offensive; and
- where did they come from?
In part one of the series (I’m undetermined how many there will be), I’m going to explore the words shit. Shit can be traced back to the Old English verb scitan, its meaning the same as today before its transformation into Modern English. However, shit goes further back than that. In Proto-Germanic skit (the Germans still say scheisse) and further back to Proto-Indo-Eurpoean skhei (c. 4000 B.C.), meaning to separate or divide yourself from your faeces. Shed (as in shed your skin) and schism comes from the same root.
When Proto-Indo-Eurpoeans arrived in the Italian Peninsula they used skhei. We can credit these Proto-Indo-Europeans for our sayings knowing your shit and I don’t give a shit. How?
Skhei means to separate or distinguish yourself, meaning if you could tell two things apart then you knew them. The Latin word for know became scire and from there we go to scientia, meaning knowledge, obtaining the word science. And this is why I love etymology because science evolved from the word shit. This is how the sayings we say today have formed; knowing your shit means you’re good at physics and chemistry and I don’t give a shit comes from the word conscience, which is from the same root.
Now, when someone says the offensive word shit out loud, or use one of the sayings above, you can tell them the etymological evolution of the word and how science helped.