"Satan sandwich"

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Yesterday morning, U.S. Representative Emanuel Cleaver (D Missouri) tweeted:

And a bit later, in an ABC News interview, Nancy Pelosi added to the menu:

Diane Sawyer: As you know, Congressman Cleaver said this is a "Satan sandwich".
Nancy Pelosi: It probably is, with some Satan fries on the side.
But uh nonetheless, uh it's something that we have to do.

This turn of phrase has spread widely. But despite the fact that most people seem to understand what it means, and why it's an appropriate description for the Budget Control Act now working its way through the legislative process in Washington, the phrase "Satan sandwich" has also been the occasion for a certain amount of puzzlement. Thus Melissa Bell, "A sugar-coated Satan sandwich, with a side of peas, please", Washington Post 8/1/2011:

What is a Satan sandwich exactly? According to a 2004 Urban Dictionary definition, it’s “The chiefest of hell’s dark delights, it is said that just one bite of it arouses an unspeakable lust of terrific potency.”

I’m not sure that’s what Cleaver meant, or I’ve been following the debt debate all wrong. The Twitter peanut gallery is already gleefully embracing the new meal. It seems to be a bigger hit than Obama’s peas.

Ms. Bell is probably just being coy, since in fact it's absolutely clear that the Urban Dictionary entry is  irrelevant in this case. Also irrelevant is the one previous occasion for the phrase "Satan sandwich" to be used in the mainstream media (Marc Peyser, "Before They Were TV Stars", Newsweek 1/2/2003):

They seemed almost normal. Sure, the son had a blond mohawk and the daughter wore magenta eye shadow. But they weren't covered in tattoos or anything. No one nibbled on a bat. Even the outrageous dad sat politely in his chair. In January, two months before they would become the year's big TV phenomenon, MTV's Brian Graden introduced the Osbournes at their first press conference. […]

Sharon: "The best neighbor we've ever had is Pat Boone." Pat Boone? "Seriously," Sharon said. "We miss him terribly." Kelly: "We had Pat Boone on one side and Meat Loaf on the other." More laughter. And another punch line. Ozzy: "It was sort of like a Satan sandwich."

Instead, it's obvious that "Satan sandwich" was Rep. Cleaver's sanitized version of the old expression "shit sandwich".

This phrase came to be associated with the football player and coach Joe Schmidt, who was fond of the maxim "Life is a shit sandwich, and every day you take another bite". (The more sanitary end of this saying was used by Larry Merchant for the title of his 1971 football book And every day you take another bite.)

A slightly different continuation was featured on t-shirts a bit later, as in this 1981 magazine ad: "Life is like a shit sandwich. The more bread you have, the less shit you have to eat."

Thus the expression "shit sandwich" has been in widespread use, for at least half a century, to describe a deeply unpleasant experience which is nevertheless something that you're expected to swallow. I certainly heard it more than once in Vietnam.

And the "sugar-coated" part is an obviously appropriate elaboration, also in fairly common use, e.g. this 2007 cri de coeur from the other end of the political spectrum:

It is so refreshing to see that I am not the only one that hasn't been turned into a drooling, non thinking for myself, idiotic, moronic, retard by the politically correct forced diversity sugar coated shit sandwich that the mainstream view bandwagon is forcing everyone to eat these days.


  1. Stan said,

    August 2, 2011 @ 6:27 am

    Satan fries presumably come from the devil's potatoes. P. W. Joyce devotes an entire chapter of English As We Speak It In Ireland (1910) to phrases involving the devil, including the following:

    'Very bad potatoes:- Wet and watery, scabby and small, thin in the ground and hard to dig, hard to wash, hard to boil, and the devil to eat them.' [original italics]

  2. James said,

    August 2, 2011 @ 7:08 am

    Cleaver's original quote was: "“If you lift the bun, what you see is antithetical to everything the great religions of the world teach. Which is take care of the poor, take of the aged. I am concerned about this because we don’t know the details. And until we see the details, we’re going to be extremely non-committed, but on the surface it looks like a Satan sandwich.”

    So I think the religious context helps to explain the choice of "Satan" as a euphemism.

  3. Bruce Rusk said,

    August 2, 2011 @ 7:42 am

    I agree that the expression sounds like it comes from "shit sandwich," but I think the choice of "Satan" also resonates with the idea of a deal with the devil, suggesting that this sandwich could come back to bite you.

  4. Lily said,

    August 2, 2011 @ 8:00 am

    In professional/business contexts, for the record, a shit sandwich is a way of delivering bad news. You always start with something good … "Your presentations have become much smoother".. then move on to the bad news … "But your slides continue to be dense and unattractive." and then close out with a high note … "though I appreciate your positive attitude and desire to improve."

    It's meant to make swallowing the .. shit… more palatable. But the bread, unlike the bread of referenced satan sandwiches, is meant to be tasty.

    I am a little unclear on what the bread is in the Satan sandwich of the debt deal…

  5. richard said,

    August 2, 2011 @ 8:13 am

    @Stan I seriously doubt Pelosi was thinking of Ireland when she made the reference to "Satan fries." Rather, I suspect it was a riff on the "freedom fries" that briefly graced the table in the congressional dining room. Perhaps she should have prefaced the phrase by saying "Pardon my French".

  6. Pflaumbaum said,

    August 2, 2011 @ 8:33 am

    @ Lily –

    I am a little unclear on what the bread is in the Satan sandwich of the debt deal…

    My reading of "if you lift the bun what you see is…" has the bun as the political/legislative language of the deal, and the infernal filling the reality of cuts to Social Security.

    Incidentally, this was an epitaph to the original 4th Earl of Sandwich: "Seldom has any man held so many offices and accomplished so little." Though how you can accuse a man who supposedly invented the sandwich of accomplishing little is beyond me…

  7. Ben Zimmer said,

    August 2, 2011 @ 8:55 am

    Recall that in September 2008 John Boehner, then House minority leader, called the bank-bailout bill "a crap sandwich." (But he voted for it anyway.)

    [(myl) It's the "vote for it anyway" part ("something that we have to do", as Rep. Pelosi put it) that makes it a sandwich. Otherwise it would just be "crap" (or "Satan")… ]

  8. Seonachan said,

    August 2, 2011 @ 9:02 am

    "Shit sandwich" was also famously the full text of a review of the Spinal Tap album "Shark Sandwich" — an appropriate sentiment from the reviewer who was forced to listen to it.

  9. Jon Weinberg said,

    August 2, 2011 @ 9:31 am

    @myl's comment to Ben Zimmer: Rep. Cleaver, though, didn't think the deal was a "sandwich" by virtue of his having to vote for it anyway — he voted against it.

    [(myl) Indeed. As Rep. Pelosi delicately put it, earlier in the same interview, "In this caucus today we have a divided consensus".]

  10. Stan said,

    August 2, 2011 @ 9:44 am

    @richard: You're quite right to seriously doubt. My suggestion wasn't remotely serious.

  11. Amy Reynaldo said,

    August 2, 2011 @ 9:56 am

    I can't help thinking of a seitan sandwich and wondering what vegetarian food has to do with the debt ceiling.

  12. gribley said,

    August 2, 2011 @ 10:12 am

    I'm with Amy. I assumed that the entrance of "seitan" into the vocabulary is what made this shift possible — especially given the ads:

    But perhaps I just live in a veggie-friendly New-Yorky world, and I suppose it's possible that Rep Cleaver is not familiar with seitan sandwiches or "hail seitan".

  13. Jonathan Lundell said,

    August 2, 2011 @ 11:20 am

    The variant I'm familiar with, from the late 60s IIRC, is "…and it's always lunchtime."

    "Satan sandwich" has its own resonance, but the context and the sugar coating make it clear that we're dealing with a shit sandwich here.

  14. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 2, 2011 @ 12:58 pm

    The prince of darkness appears more positively in a culinary context when serving, e.g., deviled eggs (although wikipedia claims that dish is sometimes known by a euphemism when served at church functions!), deviled ham, etc. And who doesn't like devil's-food cake? But maybe "devil" and its derivatives are in general capable of a range of non-pejorative extended/metaphorical meanings than "Satan" is not?

    [(myl) For more than 150 years, devilry has meant "Reckless indulgence in mischief, hilarity, or daring"; satanism, despite the best efforts of Ozzy Osbourne, remains a bit more serious. As is this "satanic salad" (compared to "deviled eggs" at the church picnic…) ]

  15. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 2, 2011 @ 2:02 pm

    To wash down a Satan sandwich, one could try a pint of this apparently-non-pejoratively-named beverage: http://hywelsbiglog.wordpress.com/2008/03/27/beer-review-wells-bombardier-satanic-mills/ This reviewer opines: "Completely unexpectedly, Satanic Mills is one of the most pleasantly drinkable bitters I’ve yet sampled."

  16. D.O. said,

    August 2, 2011 @ 3:00 pm

    Divided consensus clearly deserves more from LL than casual mention in a subcomment to a response to a subcomment to a comment. Surprisingly, this collocation has 456 (most relevant) ghits. Some of them are spurious, with some phrase ending with the word "divided" and another starting with "consensus". There is at least 1 paper where the collocation is used in the title: From divided consensus to creative disorder: Soviet history in Britain and North America
    The question is, what is it? Malapropism coming from the desire to add a hedge onto "divided conscience"? Or the word "consensus" forever ingrained in polititians' minds with positive polarity and therefore desire to put it in wherever possible?

  17. Faldone said,

    August 2, 2011 @ 3:16 pm

    Or "divided consensus" could work both ways. Those who voted for the bill did so for one of two vastly different reasons and those who voted against it did the same.

  18. J Lee said,

    August 2, 2011 @ 3:40 pm

    i cant make any sense of that tweet. raising our self-imposed limit on public debt, to me, lacks any of the potential positives that are necessary for expressions like sugar-coat and sandwich. given the publicity and nature of the compromise — buying time for wider debt negotiations — the lifting the bun part makes even less sense.

    after weiner's weiner all reps should be banned from twitter.

  19. Dakota said,

    August 2, 2011 @ 3:50 pm

    The reference to "what you see" rather than "what you smell" makes me think this is not a reference to the ubiquitous shit sandwich with an attempt to sanitize the four letter word, but rather a reference to White Castle hamburgers with an attempt to disguise the product enough not to attract a lawsuit. It is well-known in regions that have this burger chain that if you lift the bun and look at the meat you will not be able to eat the burger. Also I do not know of anyone who has ever eaten one of these while sober. The meat is square with little holes in it and looks something like a moldy saltine cracker. They are also unbelievably cheap, so you will find numerous people who want to eat these late at night and know enough not to lift the bun first. A quick google shows White Castle has chains in Cleaver's home state of Missouri.

  20. GeorgeW said,

    August 2, 2011 @ 4:39 pm

    D.O.: "Divided consensus clearly deserves more from LL than casual mention in a subcomment to a response to a subcomment to a comment."

    I agree. This is a strange formulation for me. Maybe she meant divided 'caucus.'

  21. Ellen K. said,

    August 2, 2011 @ 5:22 pm

    @Dakota: 1) Some people don't find anything disgusting about White Castles, even after looking at the patties, and do eat them while sober. 2) There are no longer White Castles in the Kansas City area, where Cleaver's district is. The Missouri White Castle locations are all in the St. Louis area.

  22. Tony said,

    August 2, 2011 @ 7:22 pm

    I've never heard shit sandwich as a way to deliver bad news, but I have heard compliment sandwich.

  23. Jerome Borden said,

    August 2, 2011 @ 9:34 pm

    Why does this remind me of Otto von Bismarck's comment on the political process being similar to sausage making? Not for the squeamish.

  24. J. Goard said,

    August 3, 2011 @ 1:02 am


    Origin misattributed to many people (I'd often heard Lord Acton), but see here.

  25. J. Goard said,

    August 3, 2011 @ 1:04 am


    Mmmmmmmmm…sliders…can I order a bucket of 100 sent to Korea?

  26. What Makes a Satan Sandwich? | Food & Think said,

    August 3, 2011 @ 9:19 am

    […] you see.” It's a turn of phrase that has since lit up the Internet with people asking: what exactly is a Satan sandwich? If one were to go down to the crossroads at midnight and call the devil's name three times […]

  27. Dakota said,

    August 3, 2011 @ 1:12 pm

    @Ellen, naw, I'm sticking with the slider theory. First of all, once you've seen one you can never forget it. Second, Cleaver is originally from Texas, where they don't have Whitecastles, but they do have something called Krystal burger which is square (the burger not the bun). Apparently these things are fungible. Third, a sandwich *must be* square, not round like a bun. Fourth, the register is all wrong. Shit sandwiches are army, Cleaver is seminary.

  28. Dakota said,

    August 3, 2011 @ 1:18 pm

    I meant, "shit sandwich" must be square. After all, it's "The more bread you have, the less shit you have to eat," not "the more bun you have…"

  29. Jonathan Lundell said,

    August 5, 2011 @ 9:46 am

    Danziger reverses the "Satan sandwich" metaphor: http://www.balloon-juice.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/satan-sandwich.gif

  30. This Week’s Language Blog Roundup | Wordnik ~ all the words said,

    August 5, 2011 @ 12:17 pm

    […] the news, Language Log noticed Satan sandwich (want Lucifer fries with that?) and the oxymoron of the week, divided consensus, while Michael […]

  31. stevesp said,

    August 7, 2011 @ 1:00 pm

    I also thought that it was just a misspelling of 'seitan sandwich' — the idea being that when you first get it, you think it's a (delicious) meat sandwich, and then you look under the bun and are disappointed… I would never have guessed that 'Satan' was some sort of cleaner way to say 'shit.'

  32. August 2011: Our disposable political rhetoric « Neither Red nor Blue said,

    September 5, 2011 @ 12:23 pm

    […] (D, Mo.) who tweeted that the debt deal that President Obama struck with Republicans was a "sugar-coated Satan sandwich." House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi agreed, adding that this legislative meal included […]

  33. Speaking of the Devil, Part 1 | Wordnik ~ all the words said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 7:55 am

    […] Satan without also thinking of a certain special Saturday Night Live character. Then there’s the sugar-coated satan sandwich, Satanic fast food, and the devil-red drink, Satan’s […]

  34. Things I love « Kate McKinnon said,

    December 5, 2011 @ 10:42 pm

    […] Below, more Roz Chast.  If you need to catch up on the context of the "Satan Sandwich…" […]

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