The Grammarphobia Blog

Ship High In Transport?

Q: I heard you discussing George Carlin’s seven dirty words and I beg to differ with you about one of them. The word “shit” isn’t a thousand years old as you believe. It comes from the 16th and 17th centuries when manure was shipped from the New World to the Old as fertilizer. The cargo had to be kept high in the hold so it would stay dry. If it got wet, the manure could produce methane gas and explode. So the label “Ship High In Transport” was stenciled on the crates, and the acronym “S.H.I.T.” became a new word for manure.

A: Thank you for your comment. It’s an interesting story and thousands of Web pages say it’s so (though many of them say the “T” is for “Transit”). However, it didn’t happen that way.

The word “shit” has been around a long time, probably longer than transatlantic shipping. In its earliest form, it appeared more than a thousand years ago as the Old English verb “scitan.”

Besides, good old farm manure was always plentiful wherever animals were domesticated, so there was no need for the Old World to import it.

Hugh Rawson, in his book Wicked Words, notes that “shit” has a long history of made-up acronyms. In the Army, for example, officers who didn’t go to West Point have referred to it as the South Hudson Institute of Technology.