Bullshit

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Bullshit is also the name of a card game, and a TV show.

Bullshit (or bull) is a common English expletive meaning "humbug" or "nonsense" or "a strange form of english humor". It implies that the purveyor of alleged nonsense is willfully lying, or that he/she is speaking boldly from ignorance. It is also the verb meaning to talk bullshit.

Because it contains the word shit, the term is considered foul language.

Contents

Etymology

Bull, meaning nonsense, dates from around the 17th century (Concise Oxford Dictionary), whereas the term bullshit was first used in 1915, in American slang, and came into popular usage only during World War II. The word "bull" itself may have derived from the Old French boul. The term bullshit may be a compounding of "bull" and "shit".

Many Americans believe it to be a simple English-language invention, referring to the feces of bulls (male cattle). The word shit (a vulgar term for faeces) is often used for something unpleasant; bullshit, horseshit (see below), and chickenshit have come informally to mean different unpleasant things.

An alternative claim is that its origins come from early Chinese immigrants to the United States, from the statement 不是 (b sh in Mandarin, roughly pronounced boo sure) meaning not so, though most early immigrant Chinese spoke the Cantonese mmm hai or in Taishanese mmm si. This theory is unlikely, because Mandarin-speaking immigrants were rare when this term entered use.

Princeton University Professor Harry Frankfurt - See this ten minute video interview on his thoughts on "BullShit" (http://www.pupress.princeton.edu/video/frankfurt/Entire.wmv)

The uses of bullshit

Bullshit is commonly employed in situations where truth and accuracy are far less important than the ability to achieve a suitable response in the audience. In many cases, such a response is the gaining of popularity or favour (often needed in politics, religion or advertising). More mundane examples of bullshit often involve the lives of ordinary people. For example, it is not at all uncommon to hear of people "bullshitting" an job interview, or attributing their performance in an examination to their ability to bullshit. In this sense, bullshitting walks the line between extemporaneous speaking and lying outright. It may also merely be "filler" or nonsense that, by virtue of its style or wording, gives the impression that it actually means something. The "bullshitter" generally either knows the statements are false or has no interest in their factual accuracy one way or the other. "Talking bullshit" is thus a lesser form of lying, and is likely to elicit a correspondingly weaker emotional response: whereas an obvious liar may be greeted with outrage or anger, an exponent of bullshit tends to be dismissed with an indifferent sneer. An example of bullshit in this sense was once added to this page: Horseshit is sibilant, euphonious, concentrated, well-formed and pungent, whereas bullshit is flat and featureless (and hackneyed by careless usage). Bullshit is used in a trite and generalized pejorative manner; horseshit is more specific and more insulting. The sibilance connotes action, akin to spitting or pissing.

Sometimes called "shooting the shit", bullshit can also be the act of having a very casual conversation with little value.

Bullshit is also used in the popular saying "money talks, bullshit walks" meaning that people who "do something" will get more results than people who merely talk.

The word horseshit is often used in vulgar slang as a synonym for bullshit to refer to nonsense. The usage of horseshit differs slightly from bullshit. People may refer to their own statements and presentations as bullshit, as in the traditional folk saying, "If you can't dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit." Horseshit is much less likely in this context. A self-professed "bullshit artist" seeks to gain the favour of his audience by flattery and telling them what they want to hear in highfalutin' tones. "Horseshit!" is the dismissive cry of the unimpressed audience.

For example, "Nobody said that there was anything wrong with you expressing your opinion, but it was pointed out that the opinion you choose to hold on the matter is horseshit."

Arguably the best popular use of horseshit was in the movie Big Trouble in Little China:

"No horseshit, Wang?"
"No horseshit, Jack."

Another good example occurs near the end of the 1974 satirical western movie Blazing Saddles. The sheriff delivers a speech to the townspeople, who respond with derision...

Sheriff Bart: The work here is done. I'm needed elsewhere now. I'm needed wherever outlaws rule the west. Wherever innocent women and children are afraid to walk the streets. Wherever a man cannot live in simple dignity, and wherever a people cry out for justice!

Townspeople: Bulllllllshit!

Sheriff Bart: Okay, you caught me. To speak the plain truth, it's getting pretty damn dull around here!

Bullshit in philosophy

In the recent volume On Bullshit, ethicist Harry Frankfurt of Princeton University characterizes bullshit as a form of falsehood-telling distinct from lying. The liar, he holds, knows and cares about the truth, but deliberately sets out to mislead instead of telling the truth. The bullshitter, on the other hand, does not care about the truth and is only seeking to impress:

It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose. [1] (http://www.jelks.nu/misc/articles/bs.html) [2] (http://www.tauroscatology.com/frankfurt.htm)

Frankfurt connects this analysis of bullshit with Ludwig Wittgenstein's disdain of "non-sense" talk, and with the popular concept of a "bull session" in which speakers may try out unusual views without commitment. He fixes the blame for the prevalence of bullshit in modern society upon anti-realism and upon the commonality of situations in which people are expected to speak or have settled opinions without knowing what they're talking about.

Quote

Attributed to an American World War II marine:

At the top of the pile is bullshit. Bullshit is powerful and often helpful...needed to get through a difficult situation. A grand lie.

Next is horseshit. Very similar to bullshit, but less noble.

At the bottom of the pile is chickenshit. Chickenshit is petty, useless, and very often harmful. Many new officers are chickenshit.

Say what you will...at least bullshit is at the top of the heap.

Further reading

  • Harry G. Frankfurt (2005), On Bullshit, Princeton University Press

See also

External link

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