Some years ago I posted a piece called Shitosophy: A Philosophy for the Existentially Lost, which relied heavily on the use of the word shit and its synonyms to make a point. This time around, I’m using shit again to introduced – 0r reacquaint – readers to the concept of the contronym. You may not have heard the word contronym before but you will have come across examples of it.
A contronym is a word that can be used in two ways to mean exactly the opposite of the other. The classic example is cleave. On the one hand, it’s used to mean “to join or stick together” as in “I was so dry my tongue cleaved to the roof of my mouth,” and on the other it’s used to mean “to split apart” as in “The hatchet cleaved his head in two.” 
Other contronyms include sanction (meaning both “to permit” and “to ban”), strike (meaning both “to hit” and, in particularly in baseball, “to miss”), fast (meaning “moving quickly” and “stuck immovably”), and peruse (both “to look over quickly” and “to look at in great detail”).
So where does shit come into this? Well, below is an image shared with me last week from Facebook that is ostensibly one of those “kids, look at what they come up with” pieces:
To be fair to the kid, it’s not wrong! And what’s more interesting is that there are two meanings to the sentence that can only be disambiguated by changing which word is being stressed.
If the stress comes down on the verb have, as in “We HAVE shit,” then that means “we have something.” In this case, shit is used as a mass noun meaning “stuff” or “something.” However, if the stress comes down on the noun for “We have SHIT,” this means “we have nothing” or even “we ain’t got diddly squat.” Here the word shit means “nothing” or an absence of something.
What we’re seeing here is the word shit being used contronymically as it can mean both something and nothing. Of course, shit has many other meanings and so isn’t solely a contronym but the example above demonstrates its contronymic aspect. The Oxford English Dictionary has multiple entries for shit as a noun, adjective, verb, and interjection, along with a list of phrases that includes shit as an essential component. It’s clearly a very flexible word (as is the case with a number of profanities) and very, very old.
There’s another contronymic example of shit that depends on whether it is used along with the indefinite or definite article . Consider the sentences below:
- You are the shit.
- You are a shit.
In the first instance, shit means something that is good and desirable but in the second it means something bad and undesirable. You’d be happy if you were THE shit but not if you were A shit.
Both cases serve to illustrate how a word’s meaning can be changed dramatically by minimal effort. In the first, it’s stress that determines meaning, and in the second it’s the definite/indefinite article that does it.
So now you know some new shit!
 Fans of the tremendously entertaining Game of Thrones on HBO can now go back and re-watch the series to count the number of examples of cleaving that take place on a regular basis. From the cleaving of Cersei and Jaime Lannister in an incestuous rendition of “the beast with two backs” to the cleaving of Gregor Clegane’s horse’s head from its body. And as a final piece of cleaving trivia, when Cersei Lannister, played by Lena Headey, did her naked “Walk of Shame,” she actually used a body double actress by the name of Rebecca Van Cleave, which involved the photo-shopped cleaving of Lena’s head onto Rebecca’s body. And who said linguistics was boring!
 In the field of Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) words like the, a, and an are often lumped together with words such as at, in, be, and is and called “Little Words.” As I’ve whined about before (Stop with the Little Words Grab-bag) this category is non-linguistic and based purely on the number of letters used in a word. But in the case of “the shit” versus “a shit,” we can clearly see that teaching a versus the is essential because the wrong choice can significantly change the intended meaning of a phrase or sentence. So the a/an/the distinction has to be treated as much more that just “little words.”
Love this! Thank you. I had a grandmother (born in the early 1900s) who could use the word ‘shit’ as a noun, a verb, an adjective, and nearly every other part of speech. I admired her!
Quick question: if memory serves me correctly, which is frequently a long shot, did you two post a blog on the use/misuse of the word ‘utilize’? And if so, please let me know where I can locate it.
Thank you again!