The Grammarphobia Blog

Bowel play

Q: Today I sit on the couch, but yesterday I sat on the floor. I hope my daughter doesn’t hit my son today, because she hit him yesterday. So which form do we follow when I tell someone about what my infant did in his diaper yesterday?

A: You went through some entertaining rhetorical contortions to avoid using our four-letter word meaning to void the bowels (which the Oxford English Dictionary says is “not now in decent use”).

But I probably won’t be able to answer your question without using the word, so I may as well get it over with. Dictionaries now recognized these forms of the verb: “shit” (present tense) … “shit” or “shat” (past tense) … “shit” or “shat” (past participle).

Like “hit,” this is one of a handful of English verbs that can have identical forms in the present, past, and past participle.

So where did “shat” come from?

In Anglo-Saxon days, the verb “shit” was scitan. The Old English forms of the verb were scitescatsciten. (The letters “sc” were pronounced “sh” then, so there was indeed an Old English past tense that sounded like “shat.”)

But by the early 1300s the common forms of the verb were “shit … shitted … shitten.” Over time, English speakers began using a single word for all three forms: “shit … shit … shit.”

The variant “shat,” though, didn’t entirely disappear. The OED has eight citations for it from the 15th to the 19th centuries.

In the early 20th century, “shat” emerged as a humorous variant for the past tense and past participle (along the analogy of “sit … sat … sat”).

Not unexpectedly, many people came to believe that the humorous variant was the legitimate form, assuming any form of a vulgar slang term can be considered legit.

Through such misunderstandings, language changes, whether we like it or not. In other words, shit happens (a slang expression that made its debut in 1983 at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, according to the OED).

Today, as I noted above, lexicographers recognize both “shit” and “shat” as the past tense and past participle, though “shit” is used more frequently.

If you’d like to read more, I had a blog item about the myth that “shit” is an acronym for “ship high in transport.” (My husband and I discuss many myths about English in Origins of the Specious, a new book that’s coming out in May from Random House.)

Now I need to walk my two Labs. It’s time for them to poop.

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