Shitshows, shitholes, and shitstorms

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I don't know who was responsible for first labeling the Trump-Biden debate a "shitshow", but the word has been much talked about during the last couple of days.

Nathan Hopson wrote in:

Well, obviously I want to know how the world is translating "shit show." You surely don't have to ask why.

French, the other language I read my news in, can fall back on un merdier or un spectacle de merde, both of which appear to be also liberally sprinkled in social media today.

Japanese famously doesn't have a whole lot of obscenities, but fortunately shit is one of them.

Asahi, Japan's #2 paper gave us:

Shit show(くそみたいなショー)
kuso mitai na shō = a show like shit

(FWIW, Yahoo Japan's realtime search of "shit show" (on Twitter, etc.), has many examples, mostly referencing the Asahi article.)

IMHO, it's sad that we have to fall back on a simile here. Takes some of the oomph out of the gut punch that was our national horror show.

How is the rest of the world press dealing with this "spectacle of shit"?

I will let Language Log readers answer Nathan's question.

I countered with one of my own:

How did the journalists fare with "shithole" a few years ago?

Nathan replied:

All over the place, as expected.

In addition to supraliteral translations such as くその穴の国々 kusō no ana no yō na kuniguni (countries like assholes — though the phrase "asshole" isn't used much in this sense afaik, other than to translate the English) used by an American-born celebrity writing in Japanese in Newsweek, and the WSJ's 便所のような国 benjo no yō na kuni (countries like toilets), there were some more creative options such as BuzzFeed's choice of 肥溜めのような国々 koedame no yō na kuniguni (manure pool-like countries).

Sankei, Japan's most established far-right rag, explained the difficulty the press were having translating this particular Trumpian bon mot. In doing so, the paper revealed more or less the trouble Japanese media was having:


    Beikokugai no media wa hon'yaku ni shiku hakku. "Koedame no yō na kuni," "kusottare kokka," "benjo no yō na kuni," "gomi no ana," nado no chokusetsuteki na hyōgen no hoka, "monogoi no sōkutsu," "tori mo tamago o umō to shinai kuniguni" nado tōmawashina hyōgen de hōdō shita.

Media outside the US have struggled mightily with translation. In addition to direct phraseologies such as "countries like manure pools," "piece-of-shit countries,"* "countries like toilets," and "trash holes," some have used more indirect phrases such as "den of beggars" and "countries where birds won't even lay eggs."**

*Kusottare: more or less literally "shit-dripper," the rough Japanese equivalent to "piece of shit" or "asshole!" as a pejorative to describe a person. One of the language's relatively small arsenal of frequently used scatological insults.

** According to Asahi, which did a similar roundup, this one was used by Taiwan's Central News Agency (台湾中央通信), and rated by the AFP as the most indirect. Seen here as well.

Sankei itself settled on 便所のように汚い国の連中 benjo no yō ni kitanai kuni, meaning "countries that are dirty like toilets" in a headline, and added 野外 yagai,  meaning "outdoor" to "toilet" for emphasis in the body of the article. Neither has the same poetry as the English.

Twitter user @MadAura helpfully solved this problem in a January 12, 2018 tweet, offering 野壺 notsubo for Sankei's "outdoor toilet." Notsubo means either a field latrine or a "night-soil reservoir dug in the field."

All of this scatalogical imagery reminded me of another excremental buzzword of recent vintage, German-English "shitstorm":

"Shitstorm"was first recorded in German usage in 2010, where it specifically refers to widespread and vociferous outrage expressed on the internet – especially on social media platforms – has been deemed to be so popular by lexicographers that it has earned its place.

The fact that Angela Merkel thinks nothing of dropping the word into press conferences and round-table discussions, has no doubt help speed its way up the word queue. The Guardian first caught her using it in June 2012 during a discussion in Berlin with David Cameron, when she referred to having faced a "shitschturm" (her pronunciation) over her dealings with crisis-ridden southern Europe.

See "Shitstorm arrives in German dictionary", by Kate Connolly, The Guardian (7/4/13)


Selected readings

"Learning a new word: 'munted'" (3/21/2020) — the COVID response as a "munted shitshow"
"Translating Trump" (1/12/18) — on "shithole countries"
"President Shithole" (1/19/20)
"Taking shit from the chancellor" (12/7/18)
"Das Wort 'Shitstorm' hat nun einen Platz im Duden" (7/4/13)
"Sprachpanscher?" (9/26/13)
"The paucity of curse words in Japanese" (9/4/14)
"No way to curse in Japanese?" (1/24/17)


  1. Tom Ace said,

    October 1, 2020 @ 5:54 pm

    Der Spiegel titled an article "The Great American Shitshow", a phrase from BuzzFeed which, unlike some other descriptions they quoted, was provided in the original English without a German translation.

  2. David Marjanović said,

    October 2, 2020 @ 4:19 am

    German-language media have generally gone with Shitshow because it's been a safe assumption for the last 40 years that everybody knows what shit means, and for even longer that everybody knows what a show is.

    There's been more diversity in how to render shithole, because Scheißloch would be most widely understood as "hole that I despise" and leave the "hole" part unexplained.

  3. George said,

    October 2, 2020 @ 5:43 am

    Nathan Hopson mentions that French has merdier or spectacle de merde. On the France 2 main evening news they used merdier, which struck me as perfect but spectacle de merde really doesn't work. It wasn't a shitty show. It was a shit show, which is a very different thing.

  4. cliff arroyo said,

    October 2, 2020 @ 9:23 am

    The only examples I could quickly find in Polish
    One used "Gówn… show" presumably short for "gówniany show" (shitty show).
    Another used 'burdel' (bordello) but also used to mean something like 'big mess'.

  5. Johanna Bishop said,

    October 2, 2020 @ 11:02 am

    Most articles I've seen in Italian use "shitshow," often with "spettacolo di merda" (shitty show) in parentheses. A mess is usually a "casino" (brothel), which is mildly vulgar but less so than shitshow. One could add an intensifier like madornale/totale/della madonna, but they don't boost the taboo factor much.

  6. Ben Zimmer said,

    October 2, 2020 @ 8:39 pm

    For a roundup of how "shitshow" has been translated into different languages, see James Harbeck's post on the Strong Language blog, "Wide world of shitshows."

  7. Noam (not that one) said,

    October 3, 2020 @ 9:00 am

    > IMHO, it's sad that we have to fall back on a simile here. Takes some of the oomph out of the gut punch that was our national horror show.

    Going in a slightly different direction, I found this statement in the original post interesting considering the frequency of discussion of “no word for X” on Language Log. I’m not exactly defending that trope, but perhaps this is what that its use is trying to get at.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    October 3, 2020 @ 8:35 pm

    From Cecilia Segawa Seigle:

    I am all for the shortest wording – I don’t like to make expressions so long and round-about. So I am for using expressions like Shitstorm rather than the ridiculously long — Sankei’s 便所のように汚い国の連中 benjo no yō ni kitanai kuni, meaning "countries that are dirty like toilets" It really doesn’t deliver the sense I would like to express.

    Angela Merkel’s inelegant use of a word like "Shitschturm" may bring embarrassment to the people of her country, but it is much more direct and economical than other more elegant round-about expressions.

  9. Adam said,

    October 4, 2020 @ 7:28 am

    But a shitshow does not, at least in my idiolect, just mean a "shit(ty) show", which is what seems to be conveyed by spettacolo di merda etc. If I go to the theatre and thes script is corny, the acting wooden, the sets creaky, I might say the show was shit. On the other hand if the lead actress forgets her lines, the lighting fails and we are repeatedly disrupted by fire alarms, I might say it was a shitshow: i.e. an event that goes off the rails and is characterised by chaos and confusion.
    When commentators call the debate a shitshow they don't just mean that it was full of shitty arguments or shitty rhetoric, or that it was boring (perhaps quite the opposite), rather that speakers failed to follow the rules, talked over each other, trade insults, in such a way that the whole format seemed to break down.

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