Tag Archives: shit

The Contronymic Properties of Shit

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.” [1]

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 [2]. Consider the sentences below:

  1. You are the shit.
  2. 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!

[1] 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!

[2] 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.”

Shitosophy: A Philosophy for the Existentially Lost

A couple of years ago, a friend of mine was going through a rough time. He’s also spent his life in a wheelchair with spastic quadriplegia, which I mention just because that sort of thing doesn’t make life any easier. I’ve known him for longer than we’d both probably want to admit and that’s why he presumably felt OK opening up to me.

But then again, we are both guys, and therefore psychologically different from the ladies. Really, we are! It’s one of those things that makes a “Speech Dude” a dude – we think differently. And when it comes to interpersonal comfort, hugging each other and weeping ain’t going to work. For guys, we show our affection in more… how can I put it… robust ways.

So for all of you out there who have been having a little bit of a shitty [1] time lately, here’s what I sent my friend in an attempt to cheer him up. It is, as you might guess, a fairly dude-ish way to interact, but hey, this really is what men are like!


If you really want me to offer some thoughts – not advice, because I am as screwed up as anyone else, and so I’m eminently unsuitable in that regard – you first have to understand that when I say I am a cynical, misanthropic curmudgeon, that’s pretty much as true as it can be. By nature, I believe I am terminally pessimistic, but that’s far better than being a perpetually disappointed optimist. I also have no truck with superstitious religiosity and belief in mystical forces. What you see is what you get and you’re pretty much on your own in life, and once it ends, that’s it – no reset button and no “extra lives” for points earned. What this boils down to is that life sucks, then you die. I don’t particularly like that but that’s the way it is and unless someone can prove otherwise, I’ll stick to that position. 

 Now, grim as all that may sound, you may be wondering why I don’t just tootle off and stick a bullet through my head and at least escape from the mindless, pointless, absurdity that we call “life.” That’s not a stupid question: the philosopher Albert Camus asked the very same thing in the mid-20th century [2]. He – and I – came to the same general conclusion: that given life is meaningless and stupid, it is, in truth, the ONLY thing we have. Life owes us nothing; it has no magical goal; it doesn’t care whether we are happy or sad or in pleasure or in pain; it doesn’t reward you for being good or bad. It just is what it is. So, it’s up to the individual to make some sense of it and build a world that they can handle. As long as you acknowledge that shit will happen – and happen frequently – and to everyone – then the purpose of life becomes how best to shovel it.

You can choose to use a large shovel, a small shovel, or no shovel at all, although if you choose not to shovel, things will begin to smell very bad very quickly. With a big shovel, you can at least clear away enough shit to see the grass, make space for fun things, or provide room for someone to hold on to for a while. Sure, the shit comes back but maybe your friend has a shovel too. 

There is no way to stop the shit. The universe is full of it and can create more on a whim. In fact, I suspect if the universe has ANY purpose at all, it is to make shit. So trying to ignore the heaps of ca-ca that you keep stepping into is simply an exercise in futility. The ONLY way to keep going is to hold on to your shovel and keep digging.

There is a second problem in life that results from the shoveling of shit: where does it go? Sadly, it never goes away, it just gets moved from one place to another. When you shovel shit away from your little path, it may well end up on someone ELSE’S path. Not only do you have to get used to shoveling your own shit but pushing around the shit that other people dump on you!

Yes, it’s that bad!!

But there is an answer. It is not perfect but it sort of works – insofar as anything can be said to “work” in this crazy world. You have to start by focusing on YOURSELF and accepting that things are always going to be bad. Imagine you are standing in a pile of poop and that you’re there for life. Now you have to work out what YOU can do either to move the crap, ignore the crap, or pretend the crap isn’t there.

It’s worth finding people who will help you shovel the shit. They, of course, have to handle their own fecal matter but finding folks who can excavate with you is priceless. They can help take your mind off the do-do and share in mutually beneficial activities. At its heart, friendship is shit sharing. I was almost tempted to coin the new word “friendshit” but that would be too much, even for me.

 And once you come to terms with the fact that shit is all around, you can start keeping an eye open for shiny things that are stuck in the crap. Sometimes it can be a pearl, a diamond, a precious stone, although often it’s just a peanut or two. Nevertheless, by actively examining the poop, you begin to find moments of pleasure, and these are a desirable alternative to the miasma of misery that is the normal condition of living. 

By learning to look for bright things and choosing what to do with them, you make life bearable. Something in your life may be a bright thing or it may simply be just more shit. If you don’t see it as a shiny object, then it is shit; and if it is shit, you need to shovel it away. Learning to tell shit from Shinola is a critical life skill. And remember, you have your own shit to deal with, so don’t let others pile their shit onto you without permission. It’s all about YOU, not anyone else.

 Whatever you decide to do is ultimately your choice. And choice is one of the few things you have that you can call your own. If you do something because other people want you to do it, then they are making the choice for you. And if that leads to a miserable experience, you have just had someone else’s shit dropped on you. On the other hand, if you choose to do something and it’s still a miserable experience, you at least have the satisfaction of knowing that YOU alone made the decision and that it is your OWN shit that you have created .

So, my entire philosophy of Life? Learn to live in shit; learn to tell shit from Shinola; choose the shiny things over shitty things; treasure the fleeting moments of pleasure.

Stick THAT on a T-shirt!!

He came out of his funk. We laughed. He’s still my friend. See, that’s what Dudes are like 😉

[1] Folks offended by the word shit may want to stop reading now because there’s about to be a small avalanche of the stuff. Unless, of course, you the sort who ignores these numbered references to a footnote until the end of the articlce – in which case you’ve already been subjected to the barrage of shits. It is, however, a perfectly good word that we can trace back to the Old English scitta or scitte, and which was used simply to refer to excrement. It’s status as a profanity seems to fluctuate, and although it’s unlikely to be used by a newsreader on the BBC, it’s currently a middling profanity you’d hear out in the pubs, but one you’d probably want to avoid using with your grandma.

[2] Albert Camus wrote The Myth of Sisyphus back in 1942, when dour, bearded French philosophers wearing long coats and berets would sit all day in street-corner cafes drinking endless cups of coffee and smoking pack after pack of Gauloises while arguing about the futility of it all. He concludes the essay with, “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”