Fecal Intensifiers

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[This is a guest post by Brendan O’Kane, written on the evening of 3/24/17]

At a friend’s dissertation defense this morning, a certain distinguished Dutch professor emeritus, explaining the appeal of prosimetric vernacular literature to audiences in late imperial Shandong, noted that “people before about 1950 were mostly bored shitless.”

This cracked the room up, naturally, but it also seemed slightly off: in my own idiolect, I might be scared shitless, but not much else. On the other hand, something that scared the shit out of me might bore the shit out of a more jaded spectator, or cause an onlooker with a meaner sense of humor to shit themselves laughing.

Clearly there are idiomatic subtleties regarding the scope of fecal intensifiers. Here is a survey of my own shit headcanon, compiled over the course of my walk home tonight:

As noted above, I might be scared shitless, but am unlikely to be amused, bored, delighted, outraged, or annoyed shitless. This is curious, since shitlessness would seem to be the natural result of something scaring, boring, or annoying the shit out of me — all distinct possibilities, according to my understanding of the idiom.* In particularly unexpected circumstances, one might even shit oneself — as a response to fear, outrage, amusement, or surprise, rather than delight or (unless as a last resort) boredom.

*I don’t believe anything has ever delighted the shit out of me, but readers are certainly welcome to try in the comments below.



40 Comments

  1. Mark Meckes said,

    March 25, 2017 @ 11:19 am

    This use of “shitless” sounds slightly off to me, too, but I think “[verb] the shit out of” can be used extremely widely. One of my favorite lines from the movie The Martian (it didn’t appear in the novel) is “I’m gonna have to science the shit out of this.”

  2. Anubis said,

    March 25, 2017 @ 11:28 am

    My intuitions agree with yours and Mark’s. “shitless” would seem to be pretty tightly bound to the specific word “scared” also – since I wouldn’t say I was “terrified shitless” or “frightened shitless” or “startled shitless.” But many things have bored the shit out of me.

  3. bratschegirl said,

    March 25, 2017 @ 11:48 am

    I’m more used to seeing “bored” intensified by “to tears” than anything excretory. I wonder, though, whether there’s any relationship between “scared shitless” and “scared the pants off me?” Purely anecdotally, I was aware of the “pants” formation first.

  4. Keith Ivey said,

    March 25, 2017 @ 11:52 am

    I think shitless is a more literal phrase that’s independent of the shit (fuck/hell) out of and applies only to fear because extreme fear can cause incontinence.

  5. Brian said,

    March 25, 2017 @ 12:18 pm

    “Bored shitless” is definitely a phrase I and my friends have used, though more in our callow youths than nowadays.

    I don’t know why boredom is allowed to participate in this fecal intensifier, since otherwise I would basically agree with the OP. I suppose in my own mind, the state of shitlessness begins to suggest something more like “loss of higher brain function”, such that the boredom leaves you nearly comatose and thus unable to consciously control your bodily functions.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    March 25, 2017 @ 12:23 pm

    @Brian

    ROTFL!!!!!!!

  7. Al Teigum said,

    March 25, 2017 @ 12:27 pm

    The title of this post just tickled the shit out of me. As did the post itself, and the comments as well. My sincere thanks to all responsible.

  8. MTBradley said,

    March 25, 2017 @ 12:36 pm

    I have always assumed that the collocation relates to fear-induced bowel movements.

  9. rjp said,

    March 25, 2017 @ 12:37 pm

    “bored shitless” is definitely fairly common in the UK, at least in my experience (Northwest, middle aged). Often with the emphasis on “shitless”. But I cannot think of anything other than bored or scared that I’ve heard in that context.

  10. empty said,

    March 25, 2017 @ 12:47 pm

    Does “bored stiff” mean “bored to death”? Boards are stiff. Also “bored out of my mind”.

  11. Ben Zimmer said,

    March 25, 2017 @ 12:48 pm

    For more on “I’m gonna have to science the shit out of this” from The Martian, and its historical relationship to “beat/scare the TABOO TERM out of (someone),” see my post on the Strong Language blog.

  12. wsa said,

    March 25, 2017 @ 12:50 pm

    My intuition goes with MTBradley’s, that the shitless in scared shitless has less to do with the X the shit out of Y construction than a fear response.

    I don’t know where this fits in, but one of my father’s sayings in response to being flabbergasted or astonished was “I didn’t know whether to shit or go blind.”

  13. Greg said,

    March 25, 2017 @ 1:20 pm

    Here’s an example with “deprived.”

  14. Xtifr said,

    March 25, 2017 @ 1:33 pm

    I’m with Brian. “Bored shitless” seems fairly unremarkable to me (here at the epicenter of “hella”). Note that Urban Dictionary even has an entry, so clearly Brian and I aren’t alone. There are five definitions listed, and the top definition has over 500 upvotes, which…well, doesn’t really mean squat, but suggests some broader acceptance.

  15. Guy said,

    March 25, 2017 @ 2:19 pm

    It would be totally natural to me to say that something “delighted the shit out of me”, (in my casual conversational register), though it would be unnatural to say I was “delighted shitless”. “Bored shitless” is fine though. This introspection might be unreliable, but I feel that “shitless” requires a verb for me and I analyze “delighted” as an adjective in the context “I was delighted”, not as a past participle. With “bored” I feel like adjectival and “true” passival interpretations are both possible. Of course, “shitless” has connotations of negativity, adversity, and violence, which makes “delighted” an odd pairing to begin with. I’m not sure why these connotations don’t block “delighted the shit out of me”, though I’ll note that it suggests an almost manic enjoyment where as being “manically delighted” seems contradictory, since “delighted”, unlike delight, strikes me as communicating an inherently mild enjoyment.

  16. S Frankel said,

    March 25, 2017 @ 2:21 pm

    In Swedish, “skit” (shit) is a colloquial intensifier polite enough for grandmothers to use. The first time I heard that, it was from a very proper lady of a certain age who mentioned a “skit bra [shit good]” film she’d seen. My jaw literally dropped – she had to stop and ask me what was wrong.

  17. cameron said,

    March 25, 2017 @ 3:03 pm

    This seems like an appropriate place to remind people of the verb “to romney” (coined during the 2012 election, I think) which was inspired by a very literal case of scared shitlessness.

  18. Chips Mackinolty said,

    March 25, 2017 @ 4:33 pm

    “Bored shitless” is frequently used in northern Australia, at least. Not sure if there is any connection with “boring as bat shit”, which is also often heard.

  19. Vireya said,

    March 25, 2017 @ 4:48 pm

    Here in Australia my father used to say, “bored witless”, which I took to mean that something was so boring as to destroy one’s brain. But now I’m wondering if perhaps it was just his way of being polite. I don’t know that I ever heard him say “shit” in any context.

  20. cliff arroyo said,

    March 25, 2017 @ 5:09 pm

    “the boredom leaves you nearly comatose and thus unable to consciously control your bodily functions”

    Now that reminds me of: “I’m so happy, I could (just) shit.”

  21. Viseguy said,

    March 25, 2017 @ 9:11 pm

    This may be my idiosyncrasy, but I’ve always associated scared shitless with an occlusive contraction of the anal sphincter that prevents defecation, not a relaxation thereof that abets it to the point of intestinal evacuation. Whereas, to me, scared the shit out of clearly implies the latter, as does, more generally, [verb] the shit out of. If there is a physiological basis for this distinction, it may explain why expressions like scared shitless are plausible while those like delighted shitless are not. No shit!

  22. Daniel said,

    March 25, 2017 @ 11:28 pm

    I am a long time fan of this publication and am extremely disappointed by the vulgar nature of this article. My youngest daughter is in middle school and I make her read each new language log post. She told me today that she was “bored sh*tless.” I was stunned and asked her where she heard such a deplorable phrase. It was disappointing to know I lead her down this path.

    I know saucy language might be normal in society, but young minds need protection from this sort of thing until they are ready. Please consider putting a parental guidance at the top of your article.

    AMDG

  23. Stephen Hart said,

    March 25, 2017 @ 11:59 pm

    Seems like “scared shitless” is all about assonance.

    (And about loss of bowel control in states of extreme fear.)

  24. speedwell said,

    March 26, 2017 @ 1:39 am

    @ Daniel: My pearls are clutched tightly for you and your precious little asterisk. Who are you protecting, people who have somehow managed to get that far down the thread without seeing the word “shit”? Reflect on what people who hold in their shit are full of.

  25. Marianne Hundt said,

    March 26, 2017 @ 1:43 am

    If you search for ‘verb the shit out of’ in a large corpus of American English you will find that the verbs entering into the construction (a surprisingly large number) almost all have negative prosody (scare, kick, etc.) with quite a few involving violent physical action, so it’s not surprising, that ‘bore’ should be amongst them.

    Now, if you search for ‘adjective shitless’, you will find that it’s used almost exclusively with ‘scared’ in pretty much every variety of English around the world, with very few native speakers occasionally being ‘bored shitless’ (but more likely in GB, Australia and NZ than in the US).

    In German, by the way, people can be ‘scheißfreundlich’ (shit friendly), but that’s not really a good thing…

  26. poftim said,

    March 26, 2017 @ 2:48 am

    This expression is definitely used in New Zealand, where I lived until recently.

    @speedwell: Couldn’t agree more.

  27. ALB said,

    March 26, 2017 @ 3:03 am

    I have a similar experience to Vireya. I heard “bored witless” growing up in New Zealand, but never the “shitless” variant…I just assumed this was some kind of error by a non-native speaker, as there are many possible uses of this as an intensifier, as the post points out.

  28. Bathrobe said,

    March 26, 2017 @ 3:06 am

    @ Daniel

    I think you need to tell your daughter that:

    1. LL is devoted to discussing ALL aspects of actual language in use, respectable or not.

    2. The fact that certain language is discussed on LL does not mean that it is suitable for all situations. Your daughter may find it fun to use with her friends, but she needs to be aware that there are real boundaries. ‘Bored shitless’ is obviously not acceptable in your household and she needs to respect that.

    All kids learn bad language as they grow up. Sometimes they use it as a sign of defiance or a badge of adulthood. I don’t think that you should worry unduly about it, as long as your daughter is aware of the social consequences of using such language.

  29. Joyce Melton said,

    March 26, 2017 @ 3:16 am

    Bored shitless is certainly perfectly understandable and remarkably expressive. I’m pretty sure it has been used before, else the speaker should be applauded for creating a model of excellent innovation.

    Bored, like scared, is a single syllable past participle describing a state unwillingly attained. Grammatical, prosodic and emotive parallelism are all good. The suggestions I’ve seen on this thread for another expansion of this figure fail on at least one of the above axes.

    I can think of only a handful of words describing such states that do pass all three comparisons and none of them (thrilled, screwed, flunked, failed, spanked, shamed, shocked etc.) work as well bored does. Screwed (or a more vulgar dysphemism) is the only one that halfway works and it would need context.

  30. Jichang Lulu said,

    March 26, 2017 @ 5:46 am

    @Daniel

    Even if those just happen to be your initials, or an acronym for something else, I suspect a certain constituency, indeed an entire order, might take offence at your use of ad maiorem D*i gloriam in this feculent context.

    Please consider adding a blasphemy warning to your comment. Even though I’m not a member of a relevant demographic, or into offence-taking in general, your remark left me stunned beyond the Br*stol scale.

    As for the warning for this post, here’s my proposal: “Language blog may contain language.”

  31. John Shutt said,

    March 26, 2017 @ 8:26 am

    I’ve never particularly associated any technical semantics with “scared the out of”; I perceive as simply a cuss word, with different cuss words carrying different overtones but none of them disturbing the meaning of the idiom. Perhaps that’s because the form that’s paradigmatic for me is the one I learned from my grandmother: “scared the living daylights out of”. That one actually feels more real to me than any other choice of , notwithstanding it has no obvious non-idiomatic meaning afaics.

  32. N said,

    March 26, 2017 @ 9:46 am

    While staring at the next blank page of a truly interminable writing project, having already cleaned the apartment, called my mother, clipped my fingernails, etc. etc., I sometimes think to myself: well, I guess I have to defecate…

    Five minutes later, I’m sitting back at the laptop, equally bored, but all out of shit.

  33. Rodger C said,

    March 26, 2017 @ 11:47 am

    @Daniel: LDS.*

    *No, folks, not the Mormons.

  34. Reinhold {Rey} Aman said,

    March 26, 2017 @ 1:52 pm

    Guys, guys, and guyettes! Daniel’s post is a mock protest! He’s pulling your legs. How could you possibly fall for something that obvious?

  35. Jamie said,

    March 26, 2017 @ 2:42 pm

    @Rey: Poe’s Law

  36. Bathrobe said,

    March 26, 2017 @ 5:54 pm

    How could you possibly fall for something that obvious?

    Because there are actually people who are serious about that sort of thing.

  37. rjp said,

    March 27, 2017 @ 6:04 am

    “He hated it over there. Said he spent most of his time either bored or scared shitless.”

    Location 3867 of “The Whisperers” by John Connolly, 2010

    Not definitive, I suppose, since you could argue that the “bored” was standalone but that’s not how I read it.

  38. Marja Erwin said,

    March 27, 2017 @ 12:54 pm

    I read bored as standalone. Can boredom make some people soil their pants?

    I don’t think of “shitless” as a generic intensifier, so I find “bored shitless” mismatched like “sleeping furiously.”

  39. Jonfrum said,

    March 27, 2017 @ 1:43 pm

    I agree with Marja – this looks like a mis-match to me. Like the time my favorite aunt described someone as being ‘happy as a clam in shit.’

  40. Graeme said,

    April 1, 2017 @ 2:17 am

    I’m deflated by Daniel’s trolling. I have a mid high school daughter, who wants to be a sociolinguist and recently topped her state’s computational linguistics competition. But my attempts to cajole her to read LL at all, let alone daily, fall on Instagrammatic eyes. I’d hoped Daniel had a secret.

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