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Beep-beep! Oh, pardon me, my detector's gone off again...

Since reading the New York Times article “Between Truth and Lies, An Unprintable Ubiquity”, I have been absolutely deluged with references to the Harry Frankfurt’s newish book On Bullshit. Why is that? What are people trying to say?

Perhaps my Gentle Readers simply know my fondness for profanity, and the magnificent way it can be used in the English language. Or perhaps it’s Mr. Frankfurt’s admirable attempt to define his terms. Or perhaps it’s some sort of deeper connection in people’s mind between this Tohu Bohu and bullshit.

Anyway, I read the excerpt (or whatever it is) at some guy’s site; I should warn you that there is no reason to believe that it is honestly excerpted or even closely connected with the original article. Still, I was impressed. The opening, mind you, led me to believe that Mr. Frankfurt was missing a good deal of how the word is actually used by actual people, but it turns out he does cover a pretty wide variety of its uses, and finds a connection between them.

Digression: It appears to be a local Boston thing, or perhaps even a Southie thing, to use the word bullshit as an adjective more or less synonymous with “furious”. As in “They towed Sully’s car; he was bullshit!” Or “How did she take it? Was she totally bullshit?” Any information on this variant would be greatly appreciated; it appears to be totally without connection to the term in its more widely-used, Frankfurtian, sense. End Digression.

I don’t yet agree entirely with Mr. Frankfurt’s description of bullshit as necessarily having a disregard for truth or falsehood. I would need to read the whole article, which I will undoubtedly do in the next year or two. And, of course, language changes. I don’t know if the term to “call bullshit” on a person or statement was in vogue twenty years ago when the article was written, but a current article would have to take it into account. That term, as I see it used these days, is not meant to call a bluff on a suspected bullshit artist, but to disagree with someone’s argument (or occasionally evidence). To me, that implies that the bullshit in question is not the bullshit that Mr. Frankfurt describes, but is a mode of argument connected with facts and their misrepresentation. Is this related to Penn and Teller’s television show of that name? I don’t know. Any Gentle Reader who posts to their site should definitely ask Mr. Jillette if he agrees with Mr. Frankfurt’s definition; I suspect he does not. Which voice speaks with more authority is a problem left to the Gentle Reader.

I also found the argument from excrement totally unconvincing. It fails, utterly, to explain the ‘bull’ in bullshit. When is something shit, and when is it bullshit? After blowing a five-run lead, one can complain about shitty pitching, or about horseshit pitching, or even about chickenshit pitching (if that was the problem), but not about bullshit pitching. Of course, one can complain about bullshit calls, which could make an interesting case for the unconnected-with-accuracy framework; are bullshit calls wrong or made-up? I would say that a cry of “Bullshit!” from the bleachers indicates a belief that the call was wrong in the sense of mistaken, not in the sense of Frankfurt’s bullshit. But it bears examination.

The most convincing bit, to my mind, is the riff off of the advice (from Eric Ambler’s novel Dirty Story) “Never tell a lie when you can bullshit your way through.” Mr. Frankfurt concludes that the speaker “was more strongly drawn to this mode of creativity, regardless of its relative merit or effectiveness, than he was to the more austere and rigorous demands of lying.” This is as close as he comes in this excerpt to our natural love of bullshit, and our admiration for the bullshit artist. We recognize, I think, how impressive it is to bullshit with verve and imagination, possibly because we wade through so much boilerplate bullshit every day.

In Hear My Song, Mickey O’Neill, the consummate bullshit artist, is played and co-written by Adrian Dunbar. When up against it, Mickey breaks out the bullshit. “I was born in peacetime. I haven’t seen what you’ve seen; I haven’t been where you’ve been.” If you haven’t seen it, I don’t know if you can imagine the power of the lilting voice and the off-center grin. “There are givers, and there are takers, and there are those who find a kind of giving in their taking.” True, Mickey learns humility and even honesty by the end of the movie, but that’s not why we love him. We love him because we can see through the baffle and we can choose not to see through it. We love him because we want to love him, because he wants us to love him. We love him, and we love Walter Burns, and we love Henry Gondorff, and we love Hickey, too, and even James Tyrone, the bastard, and we’re even fond of Ricky Roma and B.B. Babowsky and John Falstaff and we adore Captain Shotover, whose bullshit turns out to be rum, and a bunch of us even loved Ross Perot.

And if we didn’t love Willy Loman, and I couldn’t quite love him, perhaps it was because his line of bullshit didn’t quite work on anybody but himself. He bullshits himself when Charley appears, and it’s so transparent, so pathetic, that we agree that we dassn’t blame him. We blame Mickey and Falstaff and Burns, but we dassn’t blame Loman, and we love Mickey and Falstaff and Burns, and we don’t love Loman. It’s harder to love a bullshit artist in real life, of course, and easier to love a Loman. But then, in real life the bullshitter is trying to take us in; we’re the mark, not the audience.

Which brings us back to Mr. Frankfurt’s question, what is it about bullshit? What is it about that particular kind of dishonesty that makes it so different from lying, from bluffing, from fraud? What is it about us that loves a bullshitter, at least at a distance? These questions are not new, nor were they new twenty years ago. Mr. Frankfurt’s essay doesn’t answer them, and I suspect it doesn’t attempt to. Perhaps, though, if he succeeds in defining the term a little better, we can then ask the questions a little better, and maybe even find convincing (and even moderately well-defined) answers.

Thank you,


Two quick additions to a magisterial survey:

1) The Southie usage of "bullshit" to mean "furious" is, I suspect a local variant on the term "apeshit," which is used more widely to convey this idea.

2) As to where the "bull" in "bullshit" comes from, I make two suggestions, one specific, one general. First, the phrase "cock-and-bull story," which dates back to the seventeenth century, may be the origin of the specific association of "bull" with misleading speech. Second, English speakers appear to have a penchant for using colorful, colloquial "B" words to indicate loquacious and misleading speech: "baloney," "blather," and "bunk" come to mind almost immediately, some of which Mr. Frankfurt notes, some of which he doesn't.


Oh, and I'd forgotten about apeshit entirely. One goes apeshit, though, and one is bullshit. But I suspect you are right. And ... from the gorilla habit of flinging?
My OED connection is for shit, so I can't look up any of the animal-dropping phrases. Why is dogshit used to denote a foul taste (things taste like dogshit, or like horsepiss, but not like horseshit or dog piss)? Pigshit is, of course, slick, and that I understand. Batshit is not unlike apeshit, although more associated with delusion than anger; the road from empty attic through bats-in-the-belfry to batty to batshit is easy to follow. Are there associations with sheep shit? And what about cows? The humorous possibilities of cowpats are far from neglected, but those are amusingly literal, and have little to do with the topic. Cats? Mice? Geese? Kzin?


I think apeshit can mean not just furious but any state of extreme excitement. Does that sound right?

The other animal I can think of at present whose excrement has been found idiomatically appropriate for exclamations is the chicken.

Speaking of fecal phrases, where does the phrase "shit-eating grin" come from? Why is it a sign that something good is happening, or that you're getting away with something? If I were eating shit, I don't think I'd be grinning (qv "eat shit and die"), and I wouldn't think I was getting away with something either...

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